Acute Care, News, Primary Care

Experts urge NHS to leverage position as England’s largest employer to help fight health inequalities

NHS ICS health inequalities

Public Policy Project’s ICS Network has urged the NHS to leverage its position as England’s largest employer and to realise its potential for social and economic rejuvenation.

The calls came at a recent webinar, where PPP and ICJ released the latest findings from the ICS Futures roundtable series. The series saw ICS leaders from across the country convened for three Chatham House debates to identify challenges and opportunities in integrated care, to scale best practice and provide ongoing practical advice for system leaders and care providers. The series ended with an open webinar discussing the Next steps for integrated care. 

The webinar was held to coincide with ICSs taking statutory footing on July 1st, and was chaired by Matthew Swindells, Joint Chair of West London’s four Acute NHS Trusts & former Deputy Chief Executive of NHS England. Mr Swindells was joined by Dr Penny Dash, Chair, NW London Integrated Care System, Paul Maubach, NHS Midlands’ Strategic Advisor on ICS Collaboration and Laura Stamboulieh, Partner, Strategic Advisory for Montagu Evans.  

The role of the NHS  

There was a particular focus was on the role of the NHS itself in tackling the wider determinants of health. One lesson from the pandemic that was learnt across the country was the impact of low trust – particularly among more deprived areas of the country. As is well documented, vaccination rates were significantly lower in parts of the country relatively high on the deprivation index, and these sectors of the population tend to have poorer health outcomes more generally.  

“Part of the problem is not employing people from those areas”, suggested Paul Maubach, contending that a lack of representation from these areas has contributed to low trust of authorities and public services, healthcare included. It was agreed that choosing to adopt more proactive and inclusive recruitment strategies would align with the wider agenda to address and reverse health inequalities.  

The need to differentiate between health inequalities and healthcare inequalities was also a central topic of the session, particularly in view of what the NHS and ICSs can feasibly impact upon. Many drivers of poor health are deeply rooted in socioeconomic trends far outside the purview of health and care professionals, but there is much that can be addressed in the short term with the right focus and the right policies.  

For example, one of the greatest drivers of poor health in later life are educational outcomes. In turn, a crucial indicator of lower educational outcomes in the future is poor oral health at the age of two, so ensuring better access to NHS dentistry among more deprived cohorts would allow those more at risk to be identified, engaged, and supported by their local health and care systems, as well as improving access to dental services themselves.  

This area of discussion highlighted one crucial, but often overlooked point; that all health and care services are interconnected, and ultimately, are trying to achieve the same outcomes. Part of the role of ICSs, therefore, is to create a culture where all stakeholders collaborate to achieve this shared goal (improving population health).   

To this end, Dr Penny Dash argued the importance of those on integrated care boards (ICBs) having clearly delineated areas of responsibility and accountability, to create clarity over how different parts of the system fit together and to ensure that decision making does not become bogged down in bureaucratic hierarchies. “If you can’t answer the question related to your remit, you shouldn’t be at the table.”   

The importance of data was emphasised throughout the session – both from a population health management perspective, as well as the effective planning and monitoring of estates and facilities. 

It was posited by Laura Stamboulieh that “the role of the estate as an enabler is often overlooked. The ultimate delivery of ICSs will rely on a well-developed health and care estate.” On this point, it was noted that NHS estate planning has evolved little since the introduction of digital healthcare and the increase in remote working. As such, an updated, modernised approach to estate planning will be essential to delivering effective, integrated care, at scale.