Getting to grips with health inequalities at last?BMJ 2010; 340 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c684 (Published 11 February 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c684
- David J Hunter, professor of health policy and management1,
- Jennie Popay, professor of sociology and public health2,
- Carol Tannahill, director3,
- Margaret Whitehead, WH Duncan professor of public health4
- 1Wolfson Research Institute, Durham University Queen’s Campus, Stockton on Tees TS17 6BH
- 2School of Health and Medicine, Division of Health Research, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YT
- 3Glasgow Centre for Population Health, Glasgow G2 4DL
- 4School of Population, Community, and Behavioural Sciences, University of Liverpool, Liverpool L69 3GB
The World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health published its hard hitting and well received report in mid-2008 with the stark message that “social injustice is killing people on a grand scale.”1 2 The commission’s chair, Michael Marmot, was promptly invited by the UK prime minister and then health secretary for England to consider the implications for health inequalities in England, with a view to informing the government’s post-2010 strategy for tackling them. Fresh thinking and renewed momentum were needed in the face of mounting evidence that the 2010 inequalities targets would not be met.3 The government’s national equality panel has since concluded that inequalities in earnings and incomes are high in the United Kingdom compared with other industrialised countries.4 Economic advantage and disadvantage reinforce themselves across the life cycle.
The Marmot review team submitted its final report to ministers in December, marking the end of a frenetic period of activity involving nine task groups, three working committees, and two interim reports.5 The timing has eerie echoes of the groundbreaking 1980 Black report.6 Although the review chaired by Sir Douglas Black was set in motion by a Labour government, it reported to a Conservative one that was distinctly cool on the subject of health inequalities.
The Marmot report may avoid a similar fate: an election is some months away and all political parties have affirmed a commitment to tackling health inequalities. Nevertheless, as politicians of all hues become increasingly preoccupied with securing electoral advantage, it is questionable whether this important report will receive the careful and considered attention it deserves. There are few votes in health inequalities, and although the report is at pains to point out, as others have, that we are all adversely affected and our lives diminished by the growing health gap,7 this message could easily get lost. More public debate about the sort of society we want to live in might, however, provide a context for greater political courage.
The review advocates two aims: to improve health and wellbeing for all and to reduce health inequalities. To achieve these it wants social justice, health, and sustainability to be at the heart of all policies (box). The report is critical of the poor record of policy success in tackling health inequalities and places an emphasis on delivery systems and leadership. Its attempt to draw lessons from past experience is welcome. Public health experts and academics are adept at producing descriptions of the problem, as are policy makers at developing strategic responses. But the processes of delivering system-wide changes invariably receive less attention.
Six policy recommendations to reduce health inequalities
Give every child the best start in life: increase the proportion of overall expenditure allocated to the early years and ensure it is focused progressively across the gradient
Enable all children, young people, and adults to maximise their capabilities and have control over their lives: reduce the social gradient in skills and qualifications
Create fair employment and good work for all: improve quality of jobs across the social gradient
Ensure a healthy standard of living for all: reduce the social gradient through progressive taxation and other fiscal policies
Create and develop healthy and sustainable places and communities
Strengthen the role and effect of the prevention of ill health: prioritise investment across government to reduce the social gradient
We believe that three reasons for the lack of progress stand out.8 The first is the phenomenon of “lifestyle drift,” whereby governments start with a commitment to dealing with the wider social determinants of health but end up instigating narrow lifestyle interventions on individual behaviours, even where action at a governmental level may offer the greater chance of success. The response to the Marmot report must avoid this drift at all costs.
The second—a deep seated inability to join up policy and delivery across government, both horizontally at central and local levels and vertically—is evidence of how fossilised our institutional structures have become and how incapable they are of providing effective solutions to the complex problems we face.9 10 The response to Marmot’s recommendations must not mirror the inadequate and simplistic lifestyle oriented solutions to the complex problems of obesity and alcohol misuse.
Merely to do more of what we have always done is not an option. A paradigm shift in thinking is needed. The report singles out the importance of leadership and new approaches to partnership working to deliver change. Conceivably, initiatives like Total Place (a “whole area” approach to providing public services) could herald a new approach to governance and to managing policies and services locally that departs from the tribalism that too often scuppers attempts to work across professional and organisational boundaries.10
The third reason for policy failure lies in the realm of politics. Rhetoric and glossy policy statements aside, is there sufficient genuine and sustainable political will to tackle health inequalities? With the economic outlook bleak and an election looming, the temptation will be for politicians to say that we can’t afford to deal with health inequalities just yet. The imperative is to show that we can’t afford not to. This will be the Marmot report’s sternest test.
The policy changes needed for Marmot’s recommendations to succeed can occur only if these three obstacles to progress are confronted. A focus on individual lifestyle must not be allowed to obscure the need for appropriate government action. This action should go hand in hand with a more radical shift in implementation that will require new forms of adaptive leadership11 and looser partnership structures that allow for flexible solutions tailored to local contexts,12 and which provide genuine space for community empowerment. Underpinning these must be a real political commitment at all levels, because a fairer society will benefit all. The Marmot report, aware that its timing is less than auspicious, says inaction is not affordable. Both this government and its successor should heed the warning, for the journey will be both long and arduous.
Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c684
Competing interests: The authors were independent advisers to the Marmot review. All served as members of a subgroup of working committee 3 of the Marmot review. All were invited to comment on an earlier draft of the report but had no hand in writing the final report or in formulating the policy recommendations. In addition, JP was a member of task group 9 on social inclusion and mobility, and MW was chair of task group 7 on delivery systems and mechanisms and member of working committee 1. All authors have completed the Unified Competing Interest form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf (available on request from the corresponding author) and declare that (1) their respective institutions received only expenses to attend meetings and the costs of teleconferences; JP’s employing organisation received a £10 000 grant from the Department of Health for her involvement with task group 9; CT has support from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde as her employing organisation. (2) No relationship with any organisations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous 3 years. (3) No spouses, partners or children with relationships that may be relevant to the submitted work. (4) No non-financial interests relevant to the submitted work.
Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally reviewed.
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