Health Equity Requires Urgent Political Action

The New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA) is calling for the Government to endorse the political declaration of the World Health Organisation (WHO) which is pressing for a global commitment to reduce health inequities by focusing on the social determinants of health.

The declaration, passed on 21 October 2011 in Rio de Janeiro, states that achieving health equity requires the engagement of all sectors of government.

“The Government must urgently address the negative impact of social factors in New Zealand, such as poor quality, damp housing, employment conditions, and economic status that lead to illnesses, low quality of life and mortality,” says NZMA Chair Dr Paul Ockelford.

“It is of particular concern that so many of our children are living in poverty and suffering from preventable illnesses such as rheumatic fever, and respiratory diseases which are left untreated and then lead to high rates of hospital admissions. These illnesses are directly a result of sub-standard living conditions.”

“We invest so little in comparison to other OECD countries in early childhood but the evidence shows that this investment is one of the most effective measures to reduce health inequities.”

The NZMA health equity position statement recommends a range of policies including a minimum income for healthy living for people of all ages, prioritising prevention and early detection of illnesses most strongly related to health inequities, strengthening leadership to advance child health and ensuring high quality parenting programmes, childcare and early years education.

Together with the Heart Foundation and the University of Otago, Wellington, the NZMA has also published a statement ‘Seven next most important actions to reduce health inequities in New Zealand’, which includes enhancing investment in early childhood and an equitable and fair social welfare policy.

Dr Ockelford says that while we must focus on improving health equity in New Zealand we also have a moral responsibility to support a global movement to champion health equity throughout the world. The WHO statement recognizes ‘the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.’

“There is a growing consensus about the impact of socio-economic determinants on people’s lives, and the benefit of investing in the first few years of life. We now need cross party agreement on dedicated national action plans and strategies to improve the social conditions that lead to poor health outcomes for so many in our community.”

“In a time of global economic recession, which leads to increasing health inequities and worsening living conditions, it is even more pressing that we develop policies that meet the needs of the entire population with specific attention to our most vulnerable groups. Policy makers also need to consider the impact of all policies on health to ensure that these policies do not exacerbate health inequities in our society.”

The declaration also supports access to high quality, preventive health services with a particular focus on integrated primary health care.

“Health equity must be a priority within our health systems – we need to promote policies and programmes to achieve this and to recognize the importance of international cooperation to identify guidelines and good practices for supporting actions on the social determinants of health.”

“The NZMA strongly supports the leading role of WHO in global health governance and we urge our Government to support this declaration and demonstrate its commitment by acting now to support measures that achieve social and health equity.”

Further information:

Rio Brazil Declaration on Social Determinants of Health, World Health Organisation, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, 21 October 2011.

NZMA Health Equity Position Statement, published March 2011 in the New Zealand Medical Journal

Seven next most important actions to reduce health inequities in Aotearoa New Zealand
NZMA, Heart Foundation, University of Otago, Wellington