Tackling health inequalities is everyone’s business

Health inequalities is everybody’s business so it is crucial that everyone in society plays their part.

The NHS is taking action by giving extra funding to local teams so that they can tackle issues that most impact the health of their communities.

The Health Equalities Partnership (HEP) Programme funding will encourage systems to think creatively about their local communities and importantly choose priorities which will make the biggest difference to their area – whether that be specific ethnic minority groups, deprivation, homelessness or those digitally excluded.

Now is a great time to build on the momentum the pandemic has created for tackling health inequalities. I am hopeful that through this funding, systems will take the opportunity to be innovative in their approaches.

There is flexibility to expand existing programmes or to kickstart a whole new project using existing and new relationships with partners.

Most importantly the voices of the local communities should be heard when deciding which projects to take forward.

It is also crucial to take a Quality Improvement approach whereby we identify interventions that are working and stop those that are not making a demonstrable impact.

As Director of the newly established Health Inequalities Improvement team, my mantra has been to gather insight, create impactful interventions and then get evidence about what works.

Improving our communities’ health has benefits for the whole NHS – for the communities we serve, and from Boards to the frontline – this is why it is such a key priority.

The NHS Long Term Plan set out how to tackle our greatest health challenges, including closing the gaps in health inequalities in communities.

In the most recent NHS England and NHS Improvement planning guidance we set out five key priorities to do this – first leadership and accountability – we have made an explicit requirement for named Health Inequalities Leads to participate in the HEP programme.

Collaboration between partners across health, care services, public health, and the voluntary sector can overcome competing objectives and separate funding flows to help address health inequalities for our communities.

Population health management will play a key role too.

The whole NHS response to the pandemic has been an excellent example of how joined up approaches across multiple partners, agencies and organisations can make a huge positive difference. People in our communities; especially those who often experience health inequalities (the most deprived communities, ethnic minorities, those with a learning disability/autism, those with severe mental illness and those in Inclusion health groups and with protected characteristics) need support that is joined up across councils, NHS, care, and voluntary organisations.

No organisation could have risen to the challenge alone, and new pathways have rapidly developed across multiple providers that enable and protect capacity for urgent non-COVID care. Similarly, the vaccination programme’s success has been based on the NHS working in partnership with community organisations and Local Government to build vaccine confidence as well as deliver the vaccine itself.

Tackling health inequalities should be our legacy from the COVID-19 pandemic. The HEP funding is one of the ways NHS England and NHS Improvement aims to help support leadership, partnership working and innovation.

In the UK black women are four times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth, the healthy life expectancy gap between the most and least deprived communities is 19.6 years and people with learning disability have a life expectancy gap of 15 years compared to the average population.

As we head towards what we hope is the end of the pandemic in England, this is the perfect time to take all we have learned and introduce new opportunities for systems to tackle other issues like those listed above. Data driven techniques which can help systems to understand their communities more deeply are key to this.

As Integrated Care Systems mature, NHS England and NHS Improvement will be supporting them to develop greater population health management capabilities. This will increase systems’ ability to interrogate their data to identify areas of health inequalities in access, experience or outcomes and to put in improvement actions to narrow the health inequalities gap.

We are all in this together – our task is to leave a powerful legacy of narrowing health inequalities beyond the COVID-19 pandemic through collaboration, valuing everyone’s contribution and making demonstrable inroads in achieving equitable access, excellent experience and optimal outcomes for the people and communities we serve.

Dr Bola Owolabi

Professor Bola Owolabi (MRCGP, MFPH Hon, FRSPH) is Director of the National Healthcare Inequalities Improvement Programme at NHS England. She works as a General Practitioner in the Midlands.

Bola has particular interest in reducing healthcare inequalities through integrated care models, service transformation, and using data insights for quality improvement. She has spearheaded NHS England’s Core20PLUS5 approach to narrowing healthcare inequalities.

Internationally, Bola was a member of the Danish Ambassador’s Tour De Health – a ten nation healthcare policy leaders’ summit. Additionally, she was the UK representative on the Commonwealth Fund/Academy Health Tour 2023, exploring equity in national health policy across the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

She was previously National Speciality Advisor for Older People and Integrated Person-Centred Care at NHS England, where she led the Anticipatory Care workstream of the National Ageing Well Programme. She collaborated with teams across NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care as part of the Covid-19 pandemic response.

Bola is an alumna of Ashridge Executive Education/Hult International Business School and holds a Masters degree with distinction in Leadership (Quality Improvement). She also received an NHS Leadership Academy Award in Executive Healthcare Leadership for Clinicians.

Bola is an Honorary Professor at the Institute of Applied Health Research, College of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Birmingham. She is also a Vice President of the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH).