NEW DATA FROM HEALTHWATCH shows an increase in the number of people in England avoiding vital care for financial reasons. A tracker poll conducted with 2000 adults found that more people avoided getting prescription medicines, and booking NHS appointments, including dental treatment, due to the fear of extra costs in December than in October 2022.
The number of people who avoided an NHS appointment due to the cost of travel doubled to almost one in 10: 11 per cent, in December, up from six per cent in October.
The poll also found that in December:
- Over one in ten (11 per cent) have avoided booking an NHS appointment because they could not afford the associated costs, such as accessing the Internet or the cost of a phone call; up from seven per cent in October;
- 15 per cent of respondents avoided going to a dentist because of the cost of checks ups or treatment, up from 12 per cent in October;
- One in ten (10 per cent) people have also avoided taking up one or more NHS prescriptions because of the cost, up from six per cent in October;
- One in ten (10 per cent) avoided buying over the counter medication they normally rely on, up from seven per cent in October.
More than a third of the respondents, 39 per cent, said that the changes they have made to keep up with the rising cost of living – include the actions mentioned above as well as not turning on the heating and cutting back on food – have negatively affected their mental health, while 35 per cent said their physical health had got worse in the last two months.
The findings also suggest that women are disproportionally affected by spiralling costs compared to men and more have taken action to cut back on:
- Heating, which 42 per cent of women have not turned on when they usually would, compared to 33 per cent of men;
- Food, which 27 per cent of women say they have bought less of, because of the increased cost, compared to 20 per cent of men.
- Energy costs in general, with 33 per cent of women saying they have turned off or avoided using essential appliances to save energy costs, compared to 25 per cent of men.
Louise Ansari, National Director of Healthwatch England, said: “It is clear that the impact of the cost of living crisis on people’s health and wellbeing is beginning to hit home.
“We are very worried that people are increasingly avoiding getting prescription medicines, booking NHS appointments and travelling to their appointments because of the extra costs. The steps people are taking to cope with the cost of living can have serious implications on their physical and mental health. This is likely to place a further burden on the already stretched NHS.
“The cost of living should never be a barrier to healthcare. The increase in the number of people avoiding vital care needs urgent joint action from the government and health and care services.
“Steps such as offering over the counter medication on prescription based on ability to pay, raising awareness of travel reimbursement schemes and patient transport services, and ensuring people who need them take up social tariffs for phone and broadband could all make a huge difference for people who are struggling financially.”
Sarah Sweeney, Interim Chief Executive of National Voices, said: “People living with ill health and disability are much more likely than others to be pulled into poverty because of the cost of living crisis. Healthwatch England’s research echoes with insights we hear from our members – that many people are being forced to make impossible decisions between heating, eating, medications and keeping medical devices running. We support Healthwatch England’s recommendations and urge the government and health and care services to ensure people with ill health can stay afloat during these challenging times.”
Healthwatch has set out immediate actions the government, working with health and care services, can take to support people:
- GPs should offer people over the counter medications on prescription where they consider patients’ ability to pay is affected (although this has always been an option, NHS policy since 2018 has discouraged this to save money, but this approach should be reconsidered in the context of cost of living challenges);
- Primary care staff should make sure patients on a lot of medication, as well as repeat or long-term prescriptions, are aware of the annual prescription option.
- NHS services should ensure people are aware of access to patient transport services or travel reimbursement schemes.
- NHS trusts should follow current car parking guidance and actively promote the offer of free parking for Blue Badge holders, people who attend hospitals at least three times a month and parents of sick children staying overnight.
- NHS England should support NHS trusts to further consider reducing the costs of parking charges and provide concessions to visitors and carers of people who are gravely ill or have extended stays in hospital.
- NHS dentists should follow NICE guidance to offer dental check-ups based on patient’s individual risk factors. This will help free up NHS slots for more people who currently can’t find an NHS dentist and are forced to go private.
Remote bookings and appointments:
- NHS England should work with OfCom and telecommunications companies to ensure that hospital and GP phone numbers are part of a freephone service, so cost is never a barrier to phoning a health service.
- The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that even with inflation uprating, working-age benefits will be six per cent below pre-pandemic levels in real terms next year. The government should ensure benefits, including Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), keep pace with inflation in real terms, and senior health leaders should advocate for the importance of this to ensure that cost is never a barrier to managing health.
- The government should consider extending the amount of time statutory sick pay can be paid to people who can’t work. It should take into account the impact that longer waiting lists for elective care will have on some people’s ability to work, and ensuring these people aren’t left without pay despite contributing throughout their lives to the NHS through taxation.
- We have previously recommended the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England should commission a national helpline to improve access to health and care benefits, including Statutory Sick Pay, Universal Credit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Healthcare Travel Costs Scheme, Carer’s Allowance, and Personal Independence Payments (PIP). Health and care workers could signpost people to this helpline when someone mentions concerns about costs. Signposting can also be done proactively, with NHS teams using data from across integrated care systems to target, for example, people with caring responsibilities to ensure they are aware of the benefits they are entitled to.
Healthwatch is a committee of the Care Quality Commission. Its role is to gather and champion the views of users of health and social care services, in order to identify improvements and influence providers’ plans.
* The full briefing is available to download here.
* Source: Healthwatch