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Patients living in poverty ‘find it harder to access timely GP appointments’

by Emma Wilkinson
18 March 2024

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Poverty makes it harder for people to access timely GP care, ultimately putting more pressure on services, analysis from the King’s Fund has found.

A report commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that 30% of people living in the most deprived areas have turned to 999, 111, A&E or a walk-in centre because they were unable to access a GP appointment, compared with just 10% of people in the least deprived areas.

More than one in five people currently live in poverty in the UK and tackling this situation should be as much of a Government priority as bringing down NHS waiting lists, report authors argued.

Hospital data also shows a direct correlation between higher levels of deprivation and higher emergency admissions, the Kings Fund said.

There is also a correlation between deprivation and length of stay in critical care beds, the report found.

For some health conditions, prevalence is lower in the most deprived areas yet deaths are higher including from dementia and atrial fibrillation, the report authors noted.

Data from January 2024 shows that 49% of people in the most deprived areas report that the cost-of-living squeeze is impacting their physical health compared with 27% of people in the least deprived areas.

Overall, people living in poverty find it harder to live a healthy life, live with greater illness, face more barriers to accessing timely treatment, and die earlier than the rest of the population, the think tank concluded.

While the NHS can and needs to do more to make timely care accessible to deprived communities, wider investment and prioritisation to tackle poverty is needed from government and society, the authors said.

This could address poverty, improve health, and reduce pressures and financial implications on the NHS.  

Sarah Woolnough, chief executive of The King’s Fund, said: ‘One of the founding principles of the NHS is that it is free at the point of need, yet our analysis shows the cruel irony that many people living in poverty find it harder than others to access the timely care that could help them better manage their health conditions and prevent future illness.

‘The number of people living in deep poverty in the UK has risen, and recent life expectancy figures – a fundamental measure of a nation’s health – show a depressingly stark gap between the most and least deprived areas of the UK.

‘While the NHS can be a force in addressing poverty, as we head towards a general election, widening health inequalities and deepening deprivation must be tackled head on by government and policy-makers.’

Saoirse Mallorie, senior analyst and lead author at The King’s Fund, also said: ‘Our analysis highlights that not only do people living in poverty have shorter lives, they also spend a higher proportion of their lives with health problems.

‘To improve the nation’s health and use NHS resources in the best way, tackling poverty must be as much of a priority as bringing down waiting lists.’

RCGP chair Professor Kamila Hawthorne said: ‘General practice is the bedrock of the NHS, with GPs and our teams making the vast majority of patient contacts – so when our service is under pressure, it has ramifications across the health service.

‘This is what we’re seeing in this report, and our patients living in some of the country’s most deprived areas, who are often our most vulnerable, are feeling the impact most.’

Professor Hawthorne warned that while ‘hardworking GPs and our teams are doing our best to provide access to safe, timely and appropriate care for patients’, the ‘unfortunate reality’ is there are not ‘enough GPs to meet current demand,’ which is ‘hitting poorer communities the hardest’.

‘GPs witness daily the devastating health effects that poverty and deprivation are having on patients,’ Professor Hawthorne said.

‘The link between poverty and worsening physical and mental health has long been established – and we’ve only seen the situation worsen over the past decade’.

‘Much more must be done to tackle health inequalities in the UK – and as the first port of call for most of society’s most vulnerable patients, general practice has an integral part to play in any strategy,’ Professor Hawthorne added.

‘At present, we’re unable to keep up with increasing demand and we desperately need to see more funding to ensure we can provide the care our patients need.’

A version of this article was first published by our sister title Pulse