Health inequalities in society, blog by Gerry McLaughlin - NHS Health Scotland Chief Executive

21 September 2015

Everywhere I go, I come across people talking about inequalities. You might be thinking "Of course you do, it's your organisation's job to reduce health inequalities" and you'd be right. What I am noticing though is that increasingly the people I meet are looking around them and seeing that inequalities exist throughout our society - in the provision of education, low income, access to public services, in the quality of housing and the environments that we live in. More and more people are seeing the connection between these inequalities and health inequalities.

People often speak to me about the impact of health inequality on the economy - we know that countries with persistent inequalities do not grow their economies as well and are less stable than more equal countries. It's a matter of fact that when we look around the world we see that the fairer societies are also the healthier ones. That's why the two national conversations that the Scottish Government are taking forward - Creating a Healthier Scotland and Creating a Fairer Scotland - are so important. The connections between the conversations are clear and we in Health Scotland look forward to helping these conversations take place.

It's our health that enables us to live a fulfilling life and be active members of society. It's crucial to our wellbeing, but is influenced by factors largely beyond our control such as the physical and social environment in which we live, learn and work. But these health-creating and health-harming factors are not distributed evenly across society. Some areas, individuals and groups enjoy health creating factors, whilst others have more than their fair share of the harmful factors to contend with. This is what leads to some people's health improving at a faster rate than others and that, in turn, leads to health inequalities. This is one of the reasons there is a difference of around 20 years in healthy life expectancy (the years people might live in a ‘healthy’ state) between the most and least deprived areas of Scotland.

The evidence that health inequalities are rooted in social inequalities has been growing steadily over the last 40 years. We all need to do what we can as individuals to attain the best health that we can but what we can do as individuals to lead healthier lifestyles, access health screening and other preventative measures won't be sufficient on its own to reduce health inequalities. It's clear that reducing health inequalities requires action across a wide range of policy areas - we need to look at employment, welfare, housing, public services, education and the economy. We need to collaborate and take action together to improve health in an equitable way. It's not a job for the health service alone - although the health service has an important role to play - it's everyone's business and surely everyone agrees that the right of everyone in our society to achieve the best possible health is a matter of fairness and social justice?

If you would like to discuss how we can work together to tackle health inequalities, we would be delighted to come and meet with you.

If you would like to arrange a meeting please contact: Nick Hay, Senior Communications and Engagement Officer (Public Affairs) at nicholas.hay@nhs.net or + 44 (0)7500 554 575.

NHS Health Scotland is a national health board which leads on tackling health inequalities, working with and through the public, private and third sector to reduce health inequalities and improve health.