Progress on health equality in Europe has stalled, according to a first-ever Health Equity Status Report (2019) released on 10 September by the World Health Organization (WHO). In many of the 53 countries in the WHO European region, health equality has either remained either the same or worsened.
Life expectancy across the European region is relatively high: 82.0 years for women and 76.2 years for men in 2016. However, those figures are cut by up to 7 years for women and 15 years for men in the most disadvantaged groups. And although there is a clear path to closing gaps in healthcare, progress on equal access to a healthy life for all is at a standstill, the report reveals.
But “for the first time, the Health Equity Status Report provides governments with the data and tools they need to tackle health inequities and produce visible results in a relatively short period of time, even within the lifetime of a national government of 4 years,” explains Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, in an accompanying press release.
So, what is driving the health gap?
The authors have identified five critical drivers of health inequality and quantified their individual contributions:
- Income security and social protection (35 per cent)
- Living conditions (29 per cent)
- Social factors such as feelings of isolation and a reluctance to ask for help (19 per cent)
- Access to quality health services (10 per cent)
- Work and employment conditions (7 per cent)
And the data suggest that many of these drivers are not being sufficiently addressed across European countries. One notable example of this is that 29 per cent of health inequities stem from inadequate living conditions, but despite this, investment in housing and community services has decreased by 53 per cent in the last 15 years.
Furthermore, the report highlights new and emerging groups at risk of falling into health inequity, including young people who leave school early and are at risk of falling into poverty or experiencing mental health issues.
Another notable finding is that almost twice as many women and men in the poorest 20 per cent of the population report illnesses which significantly limit daily activities and quality of life. Moreover, in 45 of the 48 countries that provided data to WHO, women with the fewest years of education reported higher rates of poor health than the most educated.
Importantly, poor health places those in the lowest income bracket at a higher risk of poverty, social exclusion, loss of independence, and rapidly declining health. Not to mention, contributes to a massive loss of human potential, which can significantly impact fiscal sustainability through lost taxes and pensions as well as increased social welfare costs.
What is the solution?
The WHO defines health equality as “the absence of unfair, avoidable differences among groups of people”. In other words, everyone should have an opportunity to attain their full health potential.
The report “explains how we can achieve health equity and bring positive change into the lives of all people in our Region”, says Jakob. And will help guide future efforts to reduce health inequity, which the only Sustainable Development Goal not currently being met in Europe.