Month: July 2016

Public Health and Health Inequalities: why is progress so slow?

Public Health and Health Inequalities: why is progress so slow?

 

This is one question contained in the 2009 report: Learning Lessons from the past: Shaping a Different Future written by the Marmot Review Working Committee 3 – Cross-cutting sub group report. (November 2009).  Hunter D, Popay J, Tannahill C, Whitehead M and Elson T.

The Marmot Review was published in the following year 2010. ‘Fair Society Healthy Lives’ described a mass of data on inequalities in health. A key concept was the ‘social gradient’ which suggests that one’s social position indicates one’s health outcomes at every point on the scale of socio economic status. It thus affects everyone.

The Social Gradient

http://www.who.int/social_determinants/thecommission/finalreport/key_concepts/en/

 

Hunter et al’s (2009) paper considered sources of evidence for ‘Fair Society’ and asked why better progress has not been made to reduce health inequalities and to suggest clear messages about the way forward.

 

  1. Why has better progress not been made? 4 key issues:

 

  • Delivery Mechanisms
  • Lifestyle Drift
  • Government handling of policy
  • Power, Knowledge and Influence.

 

1a. Delivery Mechanisms

 

  1. Delivery of public services and aspects of change has been based on a certain approach. This is the ‘rational linear change model’ which is both reductionist and mechanistic.
  2. This approach is also been driven from the centre.

 

The rational linear change model, is a process for making logically sound decisions. This multi-step approach aims to be logical and follow the orderly linear path from problem identification through to solution:  Problem: obesity. Cause: overeating. Solution: eat less, move more.

Reductionism means that the whole problem is broken down into reducible parts. Obesity can be broken down into its various elements and we can reduce it to a problem of over eating based on the simplistic notion of ‘calories in must equal energy expenditure’.

Mechanistic refers to the idea that one part of a mechanical system is easily affected in a ‘cause-affect’ way by another. This tinkering with a part of the system will produce observable and predictable results. So tinkering with the ‘calories in’ part of the mechanical system should produce weight loss outcomes:  ‘Eat less = lose weight’.

The centre includes central government departments such as the Department of Health. The tendency is to impose policy onto the NHS and front line staff. So an example of central policy is ‘Change 4 life’ or ‘Make every contact count’

1b. Failure of this approach to reduce health inequalities:

The Foresight Report (2007) on obesity identified the ‘obesogenic environment’. Therefore simple solutions (reductionist and mechanistic) such as targeting obese individuals with messages about eating less and moving more is only a small part of the solution. Foresight suggests there is no simple or single solution that works in a cause-effect way. ‘Change 4 life’ which focuses on individual lifestyle changes and behaviour changes will not be enough. This fails to engage with Foresight’s ‘whole systems approach’. Obesity has to be seen as a result of an interrelationship of factors (e.g. power relationships, poverty, employment). If responses are too narrow, focusing on individual lifestyle, the outcome will be failure.

The Economist Intelligence Unit published ‘Confronting Obesity in Europe. Taking action to change the default setting.’ (2015). It outlines the failures of such approaches. It accepts lifestyle and behaviour change programmes ‘are crucial’ but also frames obesity as a medical condition, note, not a socio-political one.  It also suggests that no European country has a comprehensive strategy for dealing with obesity. It quotes Zoe Griffith (of Weight Watchers):

“Education in schools , availability of healthy eating and restriction on marketing to children will go a long way towards resetting our society, but what they are completely ignoring is the majority of the population who are overweight and obese need treatment. It’s a very complex political and policy making environment”.

For current UK and Ireland trends see Public Health England data here.

Are Nurses who focus only on lifestyle and behaviour change with their patients, and who do not critique this approach, and who are also unable to be critically reflexive about their own weight gain, part of the problem and not the solution? This brings us to ‘Lifestyle Drift’ approaches:


 

2 Lifestyle Drift

This is the tendency for policy initiatives, for example Foresight, to recognise the need to take action on the social determinants of health (upstream approaches) but which as they get implemented drift downstream to focus on individual lifestyle factors. The Economist Intelligence Unit report illustrates the complexity of inter related factors. It also then asserts that lifestyle and behaviour change are ‘crucial’ and then frames obesity also as medical condition, thereby medicalising a social and political issue in an overly reductionist manner. It acknowledges the complexity but drifts towards medical treatment, as well as lifestyle change. However it does acknowledge the need for creating an environment that ‘deters obesity’ within a comprehensive strategy that involves transport, food, agriculture and education.

Lifestyle drift tends to move policy implementation away from measures that address the social gradient concept to measures that target the most disadvantaged groups in an attempt to deal with issues such as smoking habits, food choices and exercise levels. As nurses work with individuals and families it is easy to see how lifestyle and behaviour change tools are attractive in their attempts to ‘make every contact count’. Taking action on the social determinants of health is more of a challenge for many clinically based nurses who work in secondary and primary care. This is because nurses often don’t have either conceptual tools of analysis or control over social and economic factors such as housing. That being said, their understanding of their own weight issues would also be far too narrow if based intellectually on a lifestyle and behaviour change approach.

In ‘Lethal but Legal’ Freudenberg (2014) argues that the most important and modifiable cause of health inequalities is the “triumph of a political and economic system that promotes consumption at the expense of health” (p viii). To address health inequalities requires “taking on the world’s most powerful corporations and their allies”. Similarly, Stuckler and Basu (2013) point to Government policy, specifically austerity, as a danger to public health. A question for nurses is to what extent do we recognise that it is the actions of powerful actors that shape the social and economic conditions that result in the social gradient? Lifestyle approaches do nothing at all to address this aspect.

Hunter et al then discuss government handling of policy to explore more reasons for poor progress. Nurses will have a marginal interest in this aspect at best, beyond noting that failures of outcome include the internal processes in and between government departments. Therefore we will move on to their fourth issue.

 

  1. Power, knowledge and influence.

 

There is a causal relationship between inequalities in health and the social, material, political and cultural inequalities of the social determinants of health. Scambler’s health assets approach argues that material health assets are paramount in determining health outcomes. His ‘Greedy Bastards Hypothesis’ asserts that health inequalities in Britain are first and foremost an unintended consequence of the ‘strategic’ behaviours at the core of the country’s capitalist-executive and power elite. This is where health gets political. The strategic behaviours include getting governments to reduce state regulation, tax, control, ownership and provision for public services in order to facilitate the transition to corporate ownership, provision and control of public goods such as health and education. These corporations include Mitie, Serco, GE, Virgin and Capita. They are currently negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment partnership (TTIP) between the US and the EU in order to make it easier to engage in business across the Atlantic. The TTIP will also allow corporations to sue national governments if they try to block renationalisation of health services, or if they engage in environmental or social regulations that is perceived to hurt business.

Scambler argues that the ‘capitalist class executive’ (CCE) are a core ‘cabal’ of financiers, CEOs and Directors of large and largely transnational companies, and rentiers. This ‘cabal’ has come to exercise a dominating influence over the state’s political elite including those in government. Quoting David Landes, Scambler suggests:

“men of wealth buy men of power” who then enact state policy which supports their activities and interests.

 

An example is Sir Philip Green’s handling of the BHS sale and the resulting shortfall in worker’s pension funds. It is argued that both Green and the new owner ran BHS for their own ends with little attention paid to the affect on 22,000 people working on relatively low incomes who now face a drop in pension income.

Evidence that corporate activities impacts on political decision making is provided by the delays to air pollution standards, Euro 6 (Archer, 2015; Neslen, 2015).  Volkswagen’s use of software to cheat emissions testing in the United States (Topham, 2015) indicates the lengths corporates will go to avoid externality costs resulting in the externality of, for example, increased air pollution.

Hunter et al argue that genuine redistribution of power and resources are required to address health inequalities. This reflects the WHO’s definition of the social determinants of health. They argue that policies aimed at wealth creation result in inequalities in social status and health, the latter is the price to be paid for wealth creation. This is commonly seen in justifications that argue that health, education and social security can only be paid for if the UK economy grows. Health inequalities that result from wider inequalities, and in keeping with lifestyle drift responses, are seen as the result of individual failure and behaviours, what Sandra Carlisle refers to as the ‘moral underclass thesis’ for health inequalities. This is allowed to occur because:

  1. The UK is a class divided society
  2. Behavioural Explanations support the idea of class division
  3. Public spaces for debate have declined, this contributes to the lack of a shared narrative and collective action. It allows the demonization of the working class via ‘Chav’ tropes.
  4. Political action has not allowed public engagement in decision making sufficiently to address the balance of power.

 

Conclusions:

 

To address health inequalities there is a need to consider:

 

  • Health Inequalities are a ‘wicked problem’.
  • Alternatives to the market model.
  • Social movements for change.
  • Current economic and political circumstances.

 

Wicked problems are such that there are no easy quick solutions, we need to understand that such issues as obesity result from a complex interplay of systems that is not always amenable to simple analyses and interventions. Telling people to eat better and move more clearly does not work.

Using ‘the market’ to address health is inadequate. People do not respond to price signals in the rational way that market theory expects, markets also rely on a balance of information between parties for equity to prevail and markets often ignore power imbalances and the rigging of such markets. The market in food and exercise regimes for example is skewed towards vested interests and the profit margin. Companies claim that in a market it is up to the consumer to make choices thus providing market information. The theory is that if we all shun sugar based foodstuffs the market would reflect those choices and companies would change business practices to suit.

There may be a need for social movements ‘from below’ to change powerful vested interests who profit from current economic structures and who also focus on the extremes of health (the obese rather than the overweight) for interventions. People are ‘free’ to make their own societies but not in the circumstances of their own choosing. Individualised responses cannot address those wider determinants of health.

The politics of ‘personal responsibility for health’ in the context of economic structures in which it is said “there is no money” for health and social services because the public debt has to be reduced requires challenging. For three decades a ‘hands off neoliberal approach’ to all social and political issues has been argued as the only approach. Public services have been privatised and marketised as if this is the only way to provide services.

 

Hunter et al conclude by arguing:

  • We need to debate redistribution and the type of society we wish to live in.
  • We need sustained resistance to lifestyle drift.
  • We need to resist silo based working.
  • We need to resist policy aimed only at ‘low lying fruit’ – the easy wins.

“the only way to achieve lasting reductions in inequality is to address society’s imbalances with regard to power, income, social support and knowledge…implement upstream policy interventions….supported by downstream interventions. ” (Priority Public Health Conditions Task group 8)

 

Health and Social Care – the Tory Legacy

Health and Social Care – the Tory Legacy:

 

David Cameron appeared in jovial mood both in the commons and on the steps of number 10 when he recently left office. Cameron joked at his last prime minister’s questions in the House:

other than one meeting this afternoon with Her Majesty the Queen, my diary for the rest of the day is remarkably light“.

He listed his achievements in office and seemed not to be too bothered to be leaving.

It is not clear whether people, especially frail older people, will be so sanguine about his record.

When it comes to health and social care, ‘the nasty party’s’ record is appalling. Following largely on the heels of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 and Osborne’s deficit reduction targets for the public sector, and in the face of increasing demand, we have what Roy Lilley (2013) predicted, and called, ‘The big blue bit of doom’:

His diagram was prescient, as two reports below indicate. This is having an effect on staffing levels and thus on the quality of care people get.

 Jim Mackay, CEO of NHS Improvement, recently was reported in the Health Service Journal (July 2016):

“…Trusts exceeding the 1:8 nurse to patient ratio could be told “we can’t afford that”.  

Trusts, he suggested, should not automatically spend money on new staff or better facilities on the basis of a CQC report or in an attempt to meet Royal College standards.

Janet Davies CE of the RCN stated in reply

This gives completely the wrong message to trusts, whose boards are responsible for the care, treatment and safety of their patients, by suggesting that finances are more important than patient care”.

 I’m afraid in the current context that major decision makers do think finances are more important than the quality of patient care.

 

The King’s Fund (2016) reports:

 

  1. NHS providers and commissioners ended 2015/16 with a deficit of £1.85 billion – the largest aggregate deficit in NHS history
  2. The scale of the deficit signifies a system buckling under the strain of huge financial and operational pressures.
  3. The principal cause of the deficit is that funding has not kept pace with the increasing demand for services

 

The 2016 ADASS (Directors of Adult Social Services) budget survey report states:

 

  1. Funding doesn’t match increased needs for, and costs of, care for older and disabled people.
  2. More people’s lives are affected by reductions in social care funding. The quality of care is compromised: 82% of Directors report that more providers already face quality challenges as a result of the savings being made.
  3. Directors are increasingly unclear where the funding needed will come from.
  4. The continuity of the care market is under threat. Providers are increasingly selling up, closing homes or handing back the contract for the care they deliver to older or disabled people.
  5. Investment in prevention is being further squeezed.
  6. Reduction in funding for social care has wider impact. Directors feel that negative consequences due to budget cuts have already been felt right across health and social care and agreed particularly strongly with statements regarding issue faced by the wider sector:
  • 85% thought that the NHS is under increased pressure
  • 84% thought providers are facing financial difficulty
  • 85% thought providers face quality challenges

 

NICE produced the original safe staffing guidance, centred on the idea that 1:8 was acceptable, provided somebody could wave a ‘red-flag’ and additional staff summoned. The guidance was based on the work of Anne Marie Rafferty et-al, who never said 1:8 was safe, it will not be.

Roger Watson (editor of Journal of Advanced Nursing), wrote for The Conversation UK on a recent study:  https://theconversation.com/youre-more-likely-to-survive-hospital-if-your-nurse-has-a-degree-61838 and thus provides more evidence of the strong correlation between education and outcomes. My worry is that in the UK we have drifted into ‘policy’ based evidence rather than EBP. Safe staffing levels may well be decided by finance directors (what can we afford) rather than sound evidence. This reminds me of the climate change ‘debate’ of which Roger Pielke applies the ‘iron law of economics’:

When policies on emissions reductions collide with policies focused on economic growth, economic growth will win out every time. Climate policies should flow with the current of public opinion rather than against it, and efforts to sell the public on policies that will create short-term economic discomfort cannot succeed if that discomfort is perceived to be too great. Calls for asceticism and sacrifice are a nonstarter.”

So ‘when policies on nurse staffing collide with policies focused on deficit reduction, deficit reduction will win out every time. Staffing policies will flow with the current of finance directors/CEOs opinion, and efforts to sell them policies that may cost them cannot succeed if that cost is perceived to be too great’.

A question is that while there is a perception that degree nurses and lower nurse patient ratios will increase the wage bill, while not providing savings ‘on the bottom line’ then we have a political battle not an evidence battle. The externalities of FDs and CEOs decisions fall onto individuals, families and nurses rather than the organisations balance sheet. Do we have metrics that force the financial externalities back into the equation, or is there evidence that hospitals see this evidence and are changing staffing practice?

The Tory Legacy is that we are still chasing a target of deficit reduction within a wider ideology that is suspicious of public sector provision at best. The drift is towards more private provision with perhaps a base line that the tax payer pays and a system of tops ups and private insurance schemes. This will be sold as “we cannot afford the NHS as it is” to cover for much further privatisation, marketization and a return to individualising, rather than socialising, risk. Health and Social Care as we knew it is over. If you or your parents need caring for in older age, or if you need non urgent surgery, you will need to save more money to pay for it, take out private insurances, top up your pensions or pay more tax.

Poverty Privilege and Health

In two of the richest nations ever to have existed on planet earth we have a separation which allows affluent whites to exist in a bubble of privilege; a bubble of privilege which survives the shooting of police, deindustrialisation, poverty, precarity and the social gradient in health. Privilege understands and sees how radical losers exploit poverty and exclusion, but does not want to address social and economic structures; privilege understands that pain and anger can be turned both inward and outward but looks for solutions in the individual and ‘security’; privilege sees the transmission of poverty and exclusion only in the personal agency of the poor themselves.

Washington Heights is a suburb of the most segregated city in America. Charles lives in a part of Milwaukee where the residents are 99% white, yet a few blocks up are black neighbourhoods where shops are boarded up, many houses have repossession notices on their front doors, and the air is one of decay and poverty. The separation of black and white in Milwaukee is replicated in big cities right across the US, and separation breeds a lack of empathy.”

“Local authorities which report the highest rates of people facing severe and multiple disadvantage are mainly in the North of England, seaside towns and certain central London boroughs”

“Women who live in the least deprived parts of Kensington & Chelsea can expect almost a quarter of a century more of good health than their female counterparts in the most deprived part of the borough. For females at birth, the number of years an individual could expect to live in good health based on current rates – known as healthy life expectancy – differed by an average of 24.6 years between the most and least deprived parts of the borough” (ONS, 2015)

…and yet politicians like to focus on a ‘moral underclass’, blaming them for their behaviour that causes poverty. Drink and drugs are key factors in this regard:

“Ian Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, shocked readers of the Daily Mail with: ‘Addicts and alcoholics cost us £10billion a year, says Duncan Smith: Blitz launched to help people with drink drug problems find work’ “. (Glen Bramley LSE Blog)

There is a very old debate about whether poor people owe their circumstances to structural economic factors or to moral/behavioural failings. Sandra Carlisle in 2001 argued that there are ‘contested explanations, shifting discourses and ambiguous policies’  for health inequalities: there is the ‘Moral Underclass’ discourse, the ‘Social Integrationist’ Discourse and the ‘Redistrubutive’ discourse. Each has its own explanation as to why there are inequalities and then what to do about them.

Since Sandra Carlisle wrote her paper, there has been a a good deal of evidence to suggest that structural/economic forces are a major factor in people’s health and illness. There is some evidence also of ‘transmitted poverty‘ due to adverse childhood experiences. The misuse of Alcohol and Illegal substances (they are all drugs) are of course correlated:

“There is a huge overlap between the offender, substance misusing and homeless populations. For example, two thirds of people using homeless services are also either in the criminal justice system or in drug treatment in the same year”.

Many people faced with adverse social situations learn to cope, or they become fatalistic,  or they cling together in supportive communities or they become activists fighting for social justice.  Some self harm, some drink to excess, some go to University and become doctors or lawyers or politicians.  They exercise their personal agency and succeed or fail within structurally determined circumstances. They succeed, despite not because of, the activities and ideology of the privileged. A few of the successful however, then refuse to provide more ladders while shouting “I did it so can you”.

The lack of empathy, the total separation of lifeworlds, arises partly from moral intuitions that both blinds many politicians and commentators to alternative explanations pf poverty and binds them together in a bubble of privilege that prevents them from analysing the evidence. As we all do, they engage in post hoc rationalisations – in their case that that the poor are a moral underclass who are less intelligent, lazy, and hard working than the successful – to explain and justify their own positions.  This is almost a moral imperative, because not to blame the poor opens one up to the need to justify or critique the structural and economic privileges one has unequal access to. Placing the focus on the work, drinking and drug taking habits of a ‘moral underclass’ provides one with a sense of superiority and entitlement so much on show in both US and UK politics. No doubt the same occurs in Russia and China. To acknowledge that there are structural and economic conditions, for example the public school system or the service sector low wage economies,  or the inverse care law, opens up the middle class to accusations of champagne socialism.

This is a common tactic to deflect the argument away from an examination of causes to one of ‘ad hominem’.  Another tactic is to argue that the best way to address structural and economic factors is more of the same economic policies that have held sway especially in the US and UK. Indeed on a global scale the numbers of people living in absolute poverty is decreasing. Inequality is also decreasing with in the UK (gini coefficient). However these two factors are not the only issue.  Both the UK and the US are rich and other measures of inequality have increased, see for example the use of the Palma ratio. It matters greatly for very poor people to get incomes, and mortality rates, enjoyed by the poor in the UK and the US, but that is not enough as the social, health and political problems in both countries testify.

Privilege looks around and is satisfied knowing that the ‘have nots’ only have themselves to blame. They reach for the moral underclass theory and publish it relentlessly in their newspapers and commentary. They also have the wealth and political power to ensure this ideology is accepted by the poor themselves. However, many do not. In this context:

The losers get sick.

The losers get poor.

The losers get defeated.

The losers get mad.

The losers get even.

‘Many professions take losers as the object of their studies and as the basis for their existence. Social psychologists, social workers, nurses, doctors, social policy experts, criminologists, therapists and others who do not count themselves among the losers would be out of work without them. But with the best will in the world, their clients remains obscure to them: their empathy knows clearly-defined professional bounds’ (Enzensberger 2005). Enzensberger (2005) goes on to argue:

‘one thing is certain: the way humanity has organized itself – “capitalism”, “competition”, “empire”, “globalisation” – not only does the number of losers increase every day, but as in any large group, fragmentation soon sets in. In a chaotic, unfathomable process, the cohorts of the inferior, the defeated, the victims separate out. The loser may accept his fate and resign himself; the victim may demand satisfaction; the defeated may begin preparing for the next round. But the radical loser isolates himself, becomes invisible, guards his delusion, saves his energy, and waits for his hour to come’.

Shoots a Policeman, drives a truck through a crowd, blows himself up in an airport…..all the while privilege looks on in dumb uncomprehending horror calling for more security and economic crackdowns on the moral underclass upon whom the often middle class radical loser preys.

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