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Health Inequalities

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:49 pm on 20th March 2019.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 4:49 pm, 20th March 2019

I congratulate Lucy Allan on bringing this issue to the House. I am always very pleased to support her on any issues that she brings to the House. They are always ones that I am interested in, and that is why we are all here—because we are all interested in this issue.

The issue of health inequalities is of grave concern to me, as I hail from what too often feels like the poor relation when it comes to health issues—Northern Ireland. Our NHS is stretched beyond capacity and without access to many services that the UK mainland has. I suspect that when we hear from the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, Dr Whitford, she will tell us how things are progressing in Scotland, and I always feel envious of things that are being done there. I wish that we could replicate them in Northern Ireland.

People in Northern Ireland do not have access to children’s heart doctors. Parents and their sick children have to fly to the mainland or travel to the Republic of Ireland. Over the years, a number of my constituents have fallen into that category. It is because we do not have enough demand on paper to keep a paediatric cardiology team in place, yet in practice far too many children are having to travel, with no family support, out of Northern Ireland to London or to the Republic of Ireland. They are unequal because, let us be honest, they come from Northern Ireland. The access that they have is not the same as people have on the mainland. The fact that they are going to London or to the Republic of Ireland is an indication of the problem.

Then there are those who suffer from rare diseases, who feel the inequality of suffering from something that is not common enough for there to be a focus on it or for funding to be put into it. That is heartbreaking. When we consider that 54% of UK cancer deaths are from rare and less common cancers, we suddenly realise that it is so wrong that there is such inequality in funding across all areas, including policy, services and research. In particular, symptoms of rare and less common cancers can be less well recognised or vague and, as a result, too many people are diagnosed late or through a presentation at an accident and emergency department, which generally means that outcomes will be much poorer.

I am not sure whether anyone here reads The Times, but there is a lovely photograph on the front of that newspaper today of a wee lassie who went to America to get proton beam therapy. It was a success, and that was one of the first ever examples of this. It is one of those heart-warming stories. It gives us encouragement when technological advances are made and there is an opportunity for health services elsewhere in the world to progress in such a way. It was good news that that young girl, who is now nine, was able to be back home with her family and her cancer was away.

We must address training on symptoms and publication and awareness of information to stop the inequality of those who know what to look out for with breast cancer but have no idea that the early symptoms of fast-spreading pancreatic cancer can seem like gallstones. Sometimes the issue is diagnosis and knowing the right symptoms. We must address the inequality of coverage and funding for rare diseases in the UK.

Those are not the only areas where I see inequality. I recently asked a further question regarding concerns that I have. I asked what steps the Department of Health and Social Care was taking to ensure that provisions relating to health inequalities and the life expectancy of people with learning difficulties and autism were included in the prevention Green Paper. It is important to address inequalities for those who have complex needs. Every one of us, as an elected representative, is each and every day impacted by cases involving complex issues—constituents who have not one ailment or problem, but multiple problems. That is the life we live. This was the response from the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Steve Brine:

“The ambition of the Green Paper focuses on both reducing health inequalities and increasing healthy life expectancy. We are currently considering policy options, and will be mindful of impacts on people with learning disabilities and autism.”

I look to this Minister to perhaps provide more enlightenment on that question.

We need a more proactive approach for vulnerable people and more of a focus on the inequalities that exist for those who are slightly different healthwise and who process things slightly differently. It is safe to say that currently we operate in a postcode lottery for health. I understand the budgetary constraints and they are a fact of life, but it is imperative that there is UK-wide access to healthcare that is not impacted by someone’s address, illness or ability or inability to communicate. I say this gently to the Minister: simply put, we must do better.