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Racism is stopping ethnic minorities getting the healthcare they need

University of Manchester researchers said poverty was only partly to blame for huge health discrepancies between ethnic groups

The NHS is “failing” people from ethnic minority backgrounds as racism and poverty widen health inequalities in England, new research has shown.

People from Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Arab and traveller backgrounds had roughly the same health levels of much older white British people, according to the University of Manchester study. Participants over 55 from those ethnic groups had a similar level of health to white British people over 75, according to the data.

“For the Romany people, these findings reflect a stark and familiar reality,” Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) campaigns officer Mattey Mitchell said. Gypsy or Irish travellers had the lowest health-related quality of life, the study showed.

We’ve learned to accept this reality as the norm, but this study reminds us it is not. 

“In turn, I hope it will remind others that the sharp edge of inequality has a very real and dangerous impact on peoples’ lives.”

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Policy makers must not ignore the inequalities many Gypsy and Traveller people face “within education, accommodation, the work place and more,” Mitchell added. “This has a significant impact on health.”

The researchers called for policy reform and further investigation into how structural racism is driving down health levels for people from BAME backgrounds, after Covid-19 rates laid bare the factors making ethnic minorities more vulnerable to infection such as low-paid work and poorer housing conditions.

The study of health inequalities in England, using data collected between 2014 and 2017 and published in the Lancet Public Health journal, is the most extensive research of its kind. 

“This Government is committed to ensuring everyone has access to high quality healthcare, regardless of where they live or who they are,” a Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said in a statement.

Analysts surveyed nearly 1.4 million people on mobility levels, self-care (such as washing and dressing), ability to engage in activities like work, study and housework, pain or discomfort plus anxiety or depression.

Action is needed to transform healthcare to make sure it meets the needs of all

They also studied the level of deprivation in someone’s area combined with the rate of long-term health conditions, access to healthcare, support from local services such as social care and confidence managing ones own health among different ethnic groups.

Women from ethnic minority backgrounds were at a greater disadvantage than men, according to the research.

“The disproportionate number of deaths due to Covid-19 in minority ethnic groups has highlighted ethnic inequalities”, study lead Dr Ruth Watkinson said.

“Our study adds detail to evidence of these inequities and their drivers before the pandemic. Now, we need decisive policy action to improve equity of socioeconomic opportunity and transformation of health and local services to ensure they meet the needs of all people in the multi-ethnic English population.”

Ethnic minority groups showed higher rates of health conditions like diabetes, frequently poor experiences of receiving healthcare and a lack of support from local services.

Those from the 17 ethnic minority groups studied also had lower confidence managing their own health and were more likely to be from an area with high levels of poverty.

“This suggests the NHS as an institution is failing people from some ethnic groups,” Watkinson added. 

“Policy action is needed to transform healthcare and wider support services to make sure they meet the needs of all individuals in England’s multi-ethnic population fairly.”

But the academic warned social deprivation could not fully explain the health disparities found between ethnic groups, also linking the results to institutional racism in healthcare services.

“Policymakers also need to address the structural racism that makes it harder for people belonging to ethnic minority groups to access socio-economic opportunities because poverty is a major cause of poor health.”

The DHSC spokesperson said the Government is “levelling up” across the country “so that everyone can have the opportunity to enjoy a long and healthy life”.

“Our NHS Long Term Plan, which is backed by an extra £33.9 billion for the NHS by 2023/24, puts tackling health inequalities at its heart and we have established a new NHS Race and Health Observatory to tackle the specific health challenges facing people from ethnic minority backgrounds,” they added.

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