News, Population Health

The local approach to health inequality


Dr Chi-Chi Ekhator is a GP based in South London and a GP Appraiser of NHS England. She is also Chair of Five2Medics, an initiative within Ascension Trust, born out of the desire to build wellness and resilience in communities facing disadvantage.

She spoke to Policy Analyst Lottie Moore about how the health sector must radically rethink the ways it engages with the wider social determinants of health inequality.

Good health is crucial to a good life, but it is not the only ingredient. Understanding how health fits into the wider frames of people’s lives is essential if we are to truly enable people to live the healthiest lives possible.

Dr Ekhator knows this first-hand. Working as a GP in some of the most disadvantaged areas of London, she understands the disengagement many people feel with their health services and is working to change the narrative.

The power of community

The Ascension Trust (AT) is a faith-based charitable organisation that seeks to harness and equip local communities to work together. The AT is the architect of the well-known initiative Street Pastors, in which local Christians across the UK serve as a presence on the streets to make them safer during the night-time economy. This model is now used within railways and emergency response settings. “We work with the national railways to cover areas which experience high numbers of suicidal incidents,” says Dr Ekhator. “Likewise in response settings, we send out trained individuals who respond to emergency situations to be a presence with victims and provide support to professional services.”

The key understanding behind this work is that local people know their communities best – better than the systems and structures that are set up to help them. Equipping these systems and structures to embed themselves within communities must be an exercise in learning from those already working on the ground.

“We need to understand fully the deeper challenges at play here,” explains Dr Ekhator. “We might keep sending generic reminders to a woman who doesn’t show up for her smear test. Why doesn’t she turn up? Because she’s on a zero-hour contract; she can’t afford to come. We are surrounded by poverty but we don’t see it.

“Understanding these nuances and bringing health messages into communities in trusted spaces by trusted voices is key.”

A new approach towards vaccine hesitancy

Dr Ekhator believes the Covid-19 pandemic has really revealed these knowledge gaps. “It is all well and good having Public Health England releasing messages and advice. But some of it is falling on deaf ears because people think ‘well I don’t trust you anyway so why should I listen now?’ The pandemic has actually given us scope to go into communities and speak to them and begin gaining trust.”

AT’s Beacon Project, commissioned by South East London NHS Clinical Commissioning Group is doing exactly this. The project is a 12-month initiative aimed at providing Caribbean and African communities in South East London with the ability to make informed choices, recognise myths and fake news, and ask the questions that help them understand what is happening. The project is working with local faith communities in areas that have traditionally been hard to reach through conventional methods.

“Vaccine confidence and uptake is a real trigger for anger at the moment,” says Dr Ekhator. “This project is an exercise in listening and saying “we care about you and we want to approach your health holistically – on your terms.”

The Covid-19 vaccine only works so long as it is taken, and while it is therefore currently in the collective national interest for more hesitant communities to take it, the question must be asked: since when has the health of these people been a priority?

“There is no point saying to people, ‘get the vaccine, but actually we don’t care that you’ve been smoking for twenty years and have mental health issues’ That is not an integrous way to approach communities who have been disadvantaged for so long.”

Dr Chi-Chi Ekhator, Chair, Five2Medics

The Beacon Project is therefore doing much more than just addressing vaccine issues, by providing communities with a trusted and safe place to talk, on their own terms.

For Dr Ekhator, it is about saying: “let’s not just talk about your health when there’s a crisis, but constantly. Let’s talk about blood pressure, diabetes and nutrition…about unpaid carers and under confidence. In many ways, it is a GP’s dream: being able to access hard-to-reach communities rather than sending a letter.”

A national strategy, locally delivered

Much more must be done to integrate health services into the wider tapestries of people’s lives. It should not be the sole responsibility of charities to pick up the pieces where government-funded systems are failing to reach people. It is for national governments to recognise that real change starts where people live, work and breathe. To ensure health systems can fully serve their communities, national government must first recognise the value and importance of community-led approaches.

As Dr Ekhator concludes, “health has to look different. We need to take health into our communities. We can’t expect communities to come to us. We have to meet people where they are at.”