"No doctor or hospital can improve local economic opportunities, reduce hopelessness and so reverse the dramatic rise in drug related deaths. The best they can usually do is try and stop an overdose becoming fatal if the patient somehow makes it to A&E in time."
One in ten children in the United Kingdom is either hungry or at risk of hunger, forty thousand people die each year from air pollution and, last year, a record 4,737 people died of drug related deaths. These public health crises are cutting lives short and causing misery for millions of families across our nation.
Shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to cure these public health crises? Of course, we should. What could be more important than ensuring that every child has enough to eat? Or making sure that the air we breathe does not give us cancer?
But the sad truth is that we are far from curing these crises. Sadder still, these crises have barely registered in the public consciousness. Like the proverbial frog in a pan of slowly boiling water, we simply aren’t aware of the monotonous long-term trends that are destroying lives up and down our country.
This is not just short-sighted, it is dangerous too. While we were transfixed by our most recent NHS winter crisis that may have killed around ten thousand people, we barely took a second glance at the air pollution that kills four times as many people every single year. The NHS crisis may receive wall-to-wall media coverage but air pollution is, by far, the bigger killer.
Do we ignore these crises because we view health policy solely through the prism of the NHS? In part, yes, and we are making a costly mistake when we do so. Because these crises have been caused by societal factors that are far beyond the control of any doctor or hospital.
Take drug related deaths for example. In England and Wales, drug death rates have risen by around 45% since 2012 and, in an alarming echo of the US opioid crisis, death from heroin/morphine overdoses more than doubled in that time. But more doctors, nurses and hospitals won’t solve the problem of rising drug related deaths because drug related deaths are more a product of local societal conditions than they are a product of the local healthcare system.
Drug deaths are higher in more deprived areas (despite them receiving more healthcare funding) and they appear to be exploding in areas that have experienced steep economic decline. Drug related deaths are one of the “deaths of despair” - people turn to (and die from) drug addictions when life feels hopeless, and whether someone can get a decent job in their local economy has a large impact on how hopeless one feels.
No doctor or hospital can improve local economic opportunities, reduce hopelessness and so reverse the dramatic rise in drug related deaths. The best they can usually do is try and stop an overdose becoming fatal if the patient somehow makes it to A&E in time.
Similarly, while doctors and nurses can attempt to treat the lung cancer caused by air pollution or provide care for malnourished children, they cannot enforce stricter air quality standards nor can they reverse the social security cuts that have led to the shameful rise in child hunger. The NHS can only treat the symptoms of societal diseases, they cannot provide the cure.
The cure lies in addressing the societal factors - the local economic decline, social security cuts and poor air quality standards - that are fuelling these public health crises and damaging the health and wellbeing of millions of British families in the process. Isn’t it time, then, that we stopped averting our gaze and focused on these societal factors in order to find an effective cure? For every person who values the health and wellbeing of their loved ones, the answer should be a definitive yes.
Jeevun Sandher is a Young Fabian and contributing writer for Anticipations. Follow him on Twitter at @JeevunSandher