Patients are missing appointments because of travel costs, health watchdog says

An increasing number of people are not seeking healthcare due to costs such as travel, the patient watchdog has said.

According to a survey by Healthwatch England, many patients are so concerned about the cost that they refuse dental care and refuse to take prescriptions.

The organisation, part of the Care Quality Commission, said it was concerned people were avoiding essential care and urged the government to take action.

Its country director, Louise Ansari, said: “It is clear that the impact of the cost of living crisis on people’s health and well-being is starting to hit the nail on the head.”

A survey of 2,000 adults in England found that the number of people avoiding NHS visits because of travel costs rose to 11 per cent in December 2022.

It also suggests that 15 percent of people avoid going to the dentist because of the cost of standard check-ups, up from 3 percent in October.

People also refuse to buy over-the-counter drugs, and 1 in 10 neglects self-care for the drugs they usually rely on.

Ten per cent of people also said they avoid collecting one or more NHS prescriptions because of the cost.

Prescription costs were frozen for the first time in 12 years in May 2022. (Getty/iStock)

Lynda Hesketh, 60, a rheumatoid arthritis patient from Cheshire, said the cost of living in the crisis had affected her health and well-being.

“Heating costs are a big problem because my joints stiffen in the cold,” she said. “I often turn on the heat or take a bath to relieve pain and stiffness in my joints, which adds to my energy bills.

“The energy crisis is really bad, I don’t remember it being that bad.”

Ms Hesketh told Healthwatch she was also struggling to pay for travel for hospital appointments.

She was also asked to contribute to her social welfare costs, which she considered an additional expense she could not afford.

“It’s all very stressful and very disturbing, so much so that it regularly affects my sleep. I do not feel up to all these challenges, and they contribute to the deterioration of my condition,” she said.

St Helens, Merseyside councilors and health officials have presented evidence similar to Healthwatch findings experienced locally (Liverpool Echo)

St Helens, Merseyside councilors and health officials have presented evidence similar to Healthwatch findings experienced locally (Liverpool Echo)

Additional health care costs put additional pressure on already strained household budgets.

These concerns were previously highlighted by local councilors and health officials from St Helens, Merseyside, in November, who sent a letter to Chancellor Jeremy Hunt outlining “extremely disturbing evidence”, similar to Healthwatch’s findings.

Commenting on the survey results, Ms Ansari said: “We are very concerned that people are increasingly avoiding taking prescription drugs, booking NHS appointments and traveling for appointments because of the extra cost.

“The steps people take to cope with the cost of living can have serious consequences for their physical and mental health. This is likely to put further strain on the already stretched NHS.

“The cost of living should never be a barrier to healthcare. The increase in the number of people avoiding essential care requires urgent joint action by government and health and care services.

“Steps such as offering over-the-counter prescription drugs based on ability to pay, raising awareness of travel reimbursement schemes and patient transport services, and ensuring that people who need them benefit from social tariffs for telephone and broadband can have of great importance for people in financial difficulties.

A senior health official has suggested the government declare a major NHS incident to save the health system from the current crisis (PA Wire)

A senior health official has suggested the government declare a major NHS incident to save the health system from the current crisis (PA Wire)

The survey follows a similar study carried out in September 2022 by the charity Asthma + Lung UK, which found that almost a sixth of people with asthma cut back on their inhaler use to prolong its effect.

Healthwatch has urged NHS England to work with Ofcom and telecoms companies to ensure hospital and GP phone numbers are free telephone services after 11 per cent of those surveyed said they avoided booking doctor appointments because of the cost of telephone and broadband bills.

A government spokesman said: “We know this is a difficult time for families across the country. That’s why we’ve taken swift action to provide support, including an Energy Price Guarantee, which will save the average household around £900 this winter, as well as £400 on bills and £1,200 for households most in need.

“It’s important people come to meetings and we’ve capped bus fares to £2 on thousands of bus routes to make public transport accessible and affordable, and we’ve also frozen prescription fees for the first time in 12 years.”

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