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A Magazine for Sheffield

How the cost of living is preventing us from accessing healthcare

Healthwatch Sheffield has found that people can’t afford prescriptions, the bus to the hospital or the disability equipment they need due to the cost-of-living crisis.

A tall building with lots of windows against a blue sky.

Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield

Mark Hadley

As prices go up and incomes go down, people are left with impossible choices, prioritising one essential over another and depriving themselves of heat, food and more when the money runs out. If you can barely cover your rent, then a gym membership and that long-overdue filling your dentist told you you need are inevitably abandoned.

And let’s face it, if you’re not sure if there will be food to put in front of your kids by the end of the month, you’re not likely to prioritise a prescription for antibiotics to treat your ear infection.

These things are not without consequences – time off sick from work, increased bills for more complex treatment in the future – but austerity, capitalism and structural inequalities and marginalisation combine to leave many people in a position where the cost-of-living crisis is limiting their access to healthcare.

Because while the NHS is famously free at the point of use, if you can’t afford the bus fare to get there, you can’t use it. Access to paid services such as dentistry and eye care has been hit particularly hard, as Healthwatch Sheffield found in a new report they have produced.

One person they spoke to said, “I haven’t been to the dentist in a few years because I can’t find an NHS one. I think I’ll have to pay privately if anything happens and am worried about how much it will cost.”

Healthwatch Sheffield’s research found that people in the city are worried about:

  • Paying for both prescriptions and over-the-counter medication
  • Accessing dental care, chiropody, physiotherapy and eye care
  • Being able to afford transport to hospital appointments and doctors’ surgeries
  • Their financial situation changing; even if they are comfortable now, they fear what the future will bring

Disabled people in particular have a lot to worry about. Scope identified in 2019 that disabled people in the UK “face extra costs of £583 a month”, with one in five facing monthly additional costs of £1000 or more. Families with disabled children, on average, face extra costs of £581 a month. Given the widespread disability pay gap and benefit stress on top of that, the cost-of-living crisis could leave people out in the cold when they are most in need of healthcare.

Additional barriers such as not speaking English, working a zero-hours contract or having to pay the immigration health surcharge contribute to this bleak picture.

A building is silhouetted against an orange sky.

Sheffield Children's Hospital

Dan Cook

Healthwatch Sheffield also identified that there are activities that people can no longer afford that, while they would not be classified as healthcare in themselves, do contribute to people’s mental and physical health. This can include going swimming, going to the gym, attending community activities and participating in social groups.

Perhaps the hardest thing to take is just how widespread this situation is. After housing costs, one in five people in the UK – and one in four in Sheffield – live in poverty, and in Yorkshire and the Humber and the North East, child poverty is the highest it has been in over 20 years.

As well as making millions of people’s lives difficult, this is creating problems – both personal and societal – for the future. The person who can’t pay for a simple antibiotic prescription now may end up needing hospital treatment for a much more complex infection in a few weeks’ time; the person who has to take time off work because they can’t afford their painkillers may lose their job and end up claiming JSA; the disabled person whose condition is helped by regular swimming may need more extensive physio in the future when they haven’t been able to afford a trip to the pool for months.

None of this is surprising, but even if you are heartless enough to discount the misery these situations can cause in people’s lives, it is impossible to deny that putting people in a position where they have to go hungry, skip their meds and avoid GP appointments is a false economy.

Whether the solution is a universal basic income, fair wages, improved benefit provision, the abolition of prescription charges, dentist charges and optician charges, something else, or all of the above, it is clear that something needs to happen. Because living as we are is causing suffering for too many people in Sheffield and beyond.

Learn more

If you have anything else you would like to add to Healthwatch Sheffield’s findings, get in touch with them. They are keen to find out more.

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