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Closing the gap - the way ahead

Pioneering research looking at closing the gap in health inequality has been hailed a success after coming up with a programme for the way ahead.

Recommendations include more community health trainers being recruited from the local areas they serve as well as prescribing social activities as an alternative to medication for some forms of mental illness and more focus on stop smoking services.

The two-day simulation at Newcastle University, the first time such a model has been used to tackle the problem, also concluded that there is need for a national policy for job creation and improved housing, better targeted towards disadvantaged groups.

It comes after latest figures show that people who live less than eight miles apart – a matter of minutes of the Tyne and Wear Metro – are facing11 years difference in how long they are expected to lead healthy and active lives before they are hit by a serious disease or disability.

Halving the gap in inequality

The simulation brought academics and people from the community together for the pilot project. There were also health experts, members of Newcastle City Council Health and Wellbeing Board, clinical commissioning groups and the voluntary sector.

The simulation was more than a one-off event as it has established a template which can be rolled out across other regions and overseas where there are similar gaps. It also has great value as an education tool for universities, schools and colleges, as well as local authorities.

The mission is to halve the gap for people aged 55, the age regarded as the “last chance saloon” for long lasting health problems, over the next ten years without increasing public expenditure.

The simulation builds on the Newcastle Initiative on Changing Age which is the University’s response to the societal challenge of ageing, seeking new ways to make the most of the extensive opportunities associated with increasing human longevity, while at the same time solving some of the problems.

Professor Tom Kirkwood, Director of NICA, said:  “We cannot claim to have solved this huge societal challenge in just two days but this is a real step in the right direction. The simulation is backed up by months of preparative work drawing on expert opinions to build a model that includes deep understanding of all the complex factors that are involved. What was so satisfying about the event was the great mix of people who were all able to stretch their minds and have their voices heard in what is a very real problem.”

“People are genuinely shocked by the glaring gap in health expectancy and by the gross unfairness it reveals. This simulation brought fresh energy and innovation in how we can look to reducing this. It proved conclusively that local people, from disadvantaged areas, should be in meetings where experts and practitioners plan health policy. The resulting gains will be good for maintaining quality of life as well as for avoiding preventable high-cost dependency.”

Factors towards ill-health

Age-related, chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis and some cancers are all made more likely by underlying factors that reflect a combination of environment and lifestyle, including poor diet, lack of physical activity, smoking and alcohol. While socioeconomic differences are notoriously hard to address, the experts believe that opportunities for healthier living might significantly help to make a real difference.

The simulation model was successfully tried and tested by medical students at Newcastle University and sixth-form students at Walker Technology College.

Professor Peter Gore, Professor of Practice in Ageing and Vitality, Newcastle University, said: “This was so much more than just another academic exercise. There was a real vibrancy and will to change from all cross-sections of society and an urgency to come up with solutions. We will certainly be following-up the recommendations.”

Brian Graham, a 61-year-old voluntary worker from Newcastle, said “It was a hugely interesting event and a great chance to mix with the academics and experts and come together to find solutions to what is a huge problem. We have the chance to make a difference.”

published on: 2 October 2013