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Rising cost of living is damaging people’s health, says royal college

BMJ 2022; 377 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o1231 (Published 18 May 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;377:o1231
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

Over half of UK people in a survey commissioned by the Royal College of Physicians have reported that their health has been negatively affected by the rising cost of living.

The poll by YouGov was conducted after members of the college reported the effects they were seeing of the squeeze in living standards on people’s health, and the resulting impact on health inequalities.

Doctors reported examples such as a patient being unable to afford to travel to hospital for lung cancer investigation and treatment, a woman whose ulcers on her fingertips were made worse by her house being cold, and conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease being made worse by pollution and exposure to mould because of the location and quality of council housing.

Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said, “The cost of living crisis has barely begun, so the fact that one in two people is already experiencing worsening health should sound alarm bells, especially at a time when our health service is under more pressure than ever before.”

In the poll of 2001 UK adults carried out online between 29 April and 2 May 2022, 55% (1110) reported a negative impact on their health from the rising cost of living. Of these, 84% (936) attributed this to increased heating costs, 78% (870) to the rising cost of food, and 46% (507) said rising transport costs had contributed.

A quarter (275) of those who said that their health had been negatively affected by the rising cost of living had also been told this by a doctor or other medical professional. Some 16% (172) of those impacted said that they had been told by a doctor or health professional in the past year that stress caused by rising living costs had worsened their health, and 12% (134) were told that their health had been made worse by the money they were having to spend on their heating and cooking.

The Inequalities in Health Alliance, a group of over 200 organisations convened by the Royal College of Physicians, called for a concerted cross government effort to tackle the social determinants of health to be included in the white paper on health disparities that is due later this year.

“We can’t continue to see health inequality as an issue for health directives to solve,” Goddard said. “A cross government approach to tackling the underlying causes of ill health will improve lives, protect the NHS, and strengthen the economy.”

Michael Marmot, director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity, said, “This survey demonstrates that the cost of living crisis is damaging the perceived health and wellbeing of poorer people. The surprise is that people in above average income groups are affected, too. More than half say that their physical and mental health is affected by the rising cost of living, in particular food, heating, and transport.

“As these figures show, the cost of living crisis is a potent cause of stress. If we require anything of government, at a minimum, it is to enable people to have the means to pursue a healthy life.”

Katherine Merrifield, assistant director for Healthy Lives at the Health Foundation charity, said, “The government needs to get a hold on the crisis. Recent decisions suggest they are yet to fully grasp the pandemic’s stark lesson that health and wealth are fundamentally intertwined. We need urgent action, on benefits to protect people in the here-and-now, but also to build greater resilience against future threats to our health by investing in areas that support health, including housing, education, and transport.”

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