20/20health welcomes Health Education England’s plans to introduce a programme to help tackle health inequalities in rural and coastal areas

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Rural and costal communities have older populations than urban areas, which places greater pressure on healthcare provision as there is greater need for health services. Combined with greater social deprivation, staffing issues and less access to health services, healthcare provision in rural and coastal areas is reaching crisis point.

HEE’s announcement followed the publication of a three-year parliamentary inquiry into the urban-rural divide. As Sir Chriss Witty (Chief Medical Officer) stated: “there will be a long tail of preventable ill health which will get worse as current populations age” if this divide is not rectified.

HHE’s plans will launch evidence-based pilots in selected Integrated Care Systems which also have issues in attracting, recruiting and retaining staff. HEE will focus on: increasing applications and widening access to medical schools from rural applicants; introducing rural and coastal apprenticeship programmes; and improving health literacy amongst patients.

Coastal and rural communities are often overlooked by policymakers and the media. Unfortunately, the maxim “out of sight, out of mind” plays some part in this, and it is easy to forget that these two communities are often have the poorest and, therefore consequentially, some of the unhealthiest members of society.

The health inequality between urban and rural communities is alarming and it needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency by the government.

An improvement in health literacy is an important part in eradicating the inequality, but the government needs to make rural and coastal areas more appealing to healthcare professionals, through improving salaries and working conditions.

20/20health looks forward to working alongside HEE in the months to come, but it is important that those involved do not become too narrow-focussed. There are other organisations which can help alleviate the divide. Community pharmacies have a key role, as it is no coincidence that a commercially successful high street contains a pharmacist. Improving access to pharmacies will improve not only the health of the rural population, but also improve the locale’s financial environment.

There is the potential role for third-party health providers, especially in the current well-documented challenges facing the NHS, and 20/20health will be looking into ways these organisations can help.

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