A near constant stream of reports about the negative impact of the cost-of-living crisis on the nation’s health – and about the government’s failure to address the problem – have hit the headlines in recent months. 

Last week HSJ published the results of an FoI request for data from the NHS Business Service Authority relating to the NHS low-income scheme. This revealed that in 2022 there had been a 35 per cent year-on-year increase in applications under the scheme that offers help with prescription charges, dental fees and the costs of travelling to NHS treatments.

The FoI request followed on from two surveys that surfaced earlier this year. The first, conducted over the last three months of 2022 by Healthwatch, helps explain the surge in low-income scheme applications identified by HSJ. 

The health watchdog found that respondents were increasingly avoiding getting prescriptions and over-the-counter (OTC) medications, and were refraining from booking NHS appointments – especially dental check-ups. This was not only because of the up-front charges, but also the incidental, associated costs relating to travel, phone and broadband usage.

More than a third of the respondents – nearly 40 per cent – said cutting back in this way, in addition to not turning on the heating and cutting back on food, had negatively affected their mental and physical health.

A month later, in February this year, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) released the results of a survey that again showed the cost-of-living crisis was having an impact on the take-up of prescription medicines.

Around 50 per cent of pharmacists who responded said they’d seen an increase in patients not collecting their prescription, or patients asking which items on their prescription they could “do without” because of cost considerations. And around two-thirds of respondents reported an increase in being asked if there was a cheaper OTC substitute for the medicine they’d been prescribed.

Meanwhile, last month saw the release of a survey commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) showing that more than 25 per cent of adults in Scotland have had to access the NHS because of the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on their mental or physical health. 

JRF spokesman Chris Birt told the Sunday Post, “Unacceptable levels of poverty and high prices mean that it can be all but impossible for many families to live in the warm home we all need, or provide the regular, nutritious and cooked meals that keep us healthy… This cycle of health inequality is an injustice that is failing our people and turning up the pressure on the NHS.”

Responding to the newspaper’s coverage of the report, a DHSC spokeswoman offered a flurry of defensive statistics, but on the core issue of rising food and energy prices only suggested that, “We have a plan to halve inflation.” Unsurprisingly, they made no reference to last month’s increase in charges for prescriptions (up by 30p) and NHS dental fees (up 8.5 per cent).

In the same week as the JRF report was published, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) thinktank’s Commission on Health and Prosperity released its first interim report – Healthy People, Prosperous Lives. This report pointed up how the Tories’ approach to managing the NHS over the past 13 years has impacted on both the nation’s health and its economy. 

With the prevalence of cancer, diabetes, depression and hypertension all at higher levels than they were in 2010, the IPPR estimated that individuals were now losing close to £2,000 each year in lost earnings due to poor physical and mental health, thereby reducing the size of the economy by as much as £43bn

This month saw two more reports, both of which echo the findings of the Healthwatch survey published back in January. Last week MPs sitting on the cross-party House of Commons environment, food and rural affairs committee published a report claiming that poor public transport and a relative lack of digital connectivity – both essential for many patients seeking access to health services – are contributing to poor mental health outcomes across rural communities in England.

And Citizens Advice released a survey on the same day, showing that almost one million people have disconnected their broadband during the past 12 months because they can no longer afford to pay for it – with those receiving Universal Credit most severely affected and most likely to have cancelled their contract.

2022 saw the publication of major reports from the British Medical Association, the Centre for Mental Health, the Health Foundation, the House of Commons Library and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health – all dispassionately showing how poverty, linked to the cost-of-living crisis, is increasingly driving health inequalities. 

Those inequalities have led to charities like Dentaid having to step in to offer free dental care from its mobile clinics, to bolster provision formerly available from the rapidly shrinking NHS dental sector

They have also led to many middle-income patients now reluctantly paying up to £550 an hour to see a private GP, because so many NHS surgeries are severely over-stretched and under-resourced.

It’s perhaps best left to the JRF’s Chris Birt to sum up the direction we’re all heading in with this: “It’s wrong that so many people in a rich country are living shorter, less healthy lives because they can’t afford essentials, and it is also outrageous that we are at risk of overwhelming the NHS through a lack of action.” Quite.


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