Experts say that cost of living crisis will exacerbate health inequalities in Ireland

The current cost of living crisis means that policy makers need to redouble policy efforts to address health inequalities in Ireland, according to the organisers of a workshop aimed at strengthening the evidence base for reducing health inequalities in Ireland and identifying possible interventions to address health inequity.

The workshop, which takes place tomorrow (Tuesday), is organised by academics from RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, Trinity College Dublin, and Queen’s University Belfast. It brings together policy makers, academics, public health, and health promotion experts, to review current evidence and to make recommendations for actions to reduce health inequalities across Ireland.

The United Nations has identified the reduction of inequalities as one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.  Inequalities in health are a persistent cause for concern, and the issue has become even more pressing since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent unprecedented rise in the cost of living.

In Ireland, there are marked inequalities in the health of the most advantaged compared to the most disadvantaged people and communities.  On average, people living in the least deprived areas of Ireland live five years longer, and enjoy significantly better health than those in more deprived areas (CSO 2019).

The workshop organisers say that the majority of this differential is both unfair and avoidable.

Professor Debbi Stanistreet, School of Population Health, RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, said: “The link between poverty and ill-health is very well established. The most significant factors affecting health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. These conditions are known as the social determinants of health. Academics and policymakers need to redouble their efforts to understand and address the pathways through which these social determinants impact on the most vulnerable in our society. This is even more urgent given both the climate emergency and cost of living crisis that we are facing into, which we know will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and further exacerbate exiting health inequalities.”

The impact of inequalities on children has implications for later life.  In Ireland in 2019 almost 200,000 children were living in poverty (Social Justice Ireland, 2021), and in the 9 months between July 2021 and April 2022, the number of homeless children has increased by 38% (Focus Ireland, 2022).  This should be cause for concern given the impact on the individual child and the potential for long-term adverse health effects leading to costs for both the individual and also the social and healthcare sector.

Professor Richard Layte, Trinity College Dublin said: “There is a large body of evidence demonstrating that early life disadvantage can influence health trajectory later in life. Prenatal and early life to age five offer a ‘critical period’ which shapes later health risks. This is partly because, for some bodily systems, effects of inequalities can persist particularly for metabolic, endocrine and cognitive systems, but also because early life opportunities shape educational and occupational outcomes. Investment in early years education and support is central to addressing both health inequalities and equality of opportunity in Ireland and needs to be a cornerstone of national policy.”

Professor Diarmuid O’Donovan, Queen’s University Belfast, stresses that health inequalities need to be addressed across all government sectors, and should not be considered the responsibility solely of the health sector.

“All health and social policies should be considered in light of the impact they will have on inequality. We need to consider ‘What impact will this have on the most disadvantaged in the population and will it reduce health inequalities locally?’ This approach demonstrates the importance of the public health function working closely with local government, along with the voluntary and private sector to reduce health inequalities and promote good health and longer life for all Irish society.”

The workshop has been informed by the work of Teenpath, a research collaboration between RCSI and TCD, funded by the Health Research Board, which has been examining socio-economic inequalities in the health of young people in Ireland.

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