04 March 2011

The New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA) is calling for urgent action from the Government and health sector to address health inequities in New Zealand, which continues to perform poorly in terms of health outcomes and access to care when compared to other high income countries.

The NZMA’s Health Equity position statement, published in today’s New Zealand Medical Journal, emphasises the impact of social determinants such as education, transport, indigenous status and quality housing in influencing health outcomes.

“Extensive research has already been undertaken on the impact social determinants have in influencing the health of individuals and health inequities. What we now need is action to improve these social determinants to reduce the prevalence of serious medical conditions, and to enhance the quality and longevity of New Zealanders’ lives,” says NZMA Chair Dr Peter Foley.

Dr Foley says that making progress on the many social determinants of health requires the involvement of a wide range of government agencies such as social development, transport, education and local government. While the current Government has started the process of integrating key social agencies, including more frequent meeting and collaboration between social services ministries, this process needs to be comprehensive, and accelerated. “It’s a whole of government approach but the health sector, and health professionals, also have a vital role to play assisting other sectors in assessing the health impacts of their policies.”

“We also believe that particular emphasis must be placed on Maori, Pacific people and other vulnerable groups which are often at the lower end of the social gradient and are the most affected by health inequities,” says Dr Foley.

The NZMA also urges the government to focus on policies which will give every child the best start in life, as a child’s early experiences have a profound influence on the incidence of diseases in later life.

“We strongly support the recommendations of the recently released report of the Public Health Advisory Committee, The Best Start in Life: Achieving effective action on child health and wellbeing and we urge the government to adopt its proposals. Child poverty in this country is a widespread problem and we must use all the resources at our disposal to address this national shame.”

Dr Foley says that while the position statement focuses on the responsibilities of government, the NZMA is also a strong proponent of the need for health professionals to advise and advocate on the social determinants of health on a population basis that goes beyond “treating individual patients.”

The NZMA position statement draws on international research, such as England’s Fair Society Health Lives: Strategic Review on Health Inequalities in England post-2010, but is also strongly based on the New Zealand specific context.