Cost of living crisis affecting how people use health and care services

People are increasingly avoiding NHS appointments and prescriptions due to cost of living, Healthwatch England warns. The number of people avoiding an NHS appointment because they can’t afford travel almost doubled between October and December as the cost of living crisis is forcing many to change how they use health and care services.

Over a third (39%) of people say the changes they have made to their lives due to the cost of living crisis have affected their mental health. Women are disproportionately affected by spiralling costs, with 35% saying their mental health has got worse over the last two months, compared to 26% of men.

With spiralling costs of living, Healthwatch is warning people are making changes to how they use health and social care services, which can have an adverse impact on their health and wellbeing.

The impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on many people’s ability to heat their homes and eat well has been widely reported. However, new Healthwatch data suggests people are increasingly avoiding prescriptions, out-of-pocket costs for carers and attending NHS appointments due to the costs involved.

National body Healthwatch England conducted a tracker poll with 2,000 adults in England between October and December to assess the impact of the cost of living on their health and wellbeing and whether it has affected how they use health and social care services. It found that more people avoided getting prescription medicines, and booking NHS appointments, including dental treatment, due to the fear of extra costs in December than in October. The number of people who avoided an NHS appointment due to the cost of travel doubled to almost one in 10, 11%, in December, from 6% in October.

The poll found that in December:

  • Over one in seven, 15%, of respondents avoided going to a dentist because of the cost of checks ups or treatment, an increase of 3% since October;
  • Nearly 11% of respondents have made tough decisions to change, cut down on or stop support from paid carers, 4% higher than October;
  • Over one in ten (11%) have avoided booking an NHS appointment because they couldn’t afford the associated costs, such as accessing the Internet or the cost of a phone call; up from 4% in October;
  • One in ten, 10%, avoided buying over the counter medication they normally rely on, up 3% from October;
  • And one in ten, 10%, of people have also avoided taking up one or more NHS prescriptions because of the cost, which is 4% higher.

More than a third of the respondents, 39%, said that the changes they have made to keep up with the rising cost of living have negatively affected their mental health, while 35% said their physical health had got worse in the last two months.

The findings also suggest women are disproportionally affected by spiralling costs compared to men and more have taken action to cut back on:

  • heating, which 42% of women have not turned on when they usually would, compared to 33% of men;
  • food, which 27% of women say they have bought less of, because of the increased cost, compared to 20% of men; and
  • energy costs in general, with 33% of women saying they have turned off or avoided using essential appliances to save energy costs, compared to 25% of men.

Louise Ansari, National Director of Healthwatch England said: “It is clear that the impact of the cost of living crisis on people’s health and wellbeing is beginning to hit home. We are very worried that people are increasingly avoiding getting prescription medicines, booking NHS appointments and travelling to their appointments because of the extra costs. The steps people are taking to cope with the cost of living can have serious implications on their physical and mental health. This is likely to place a further burden on the already stretched NHS.”

Healthwatch England has set out immediate actions the government working with health and care services can take to support people in the cost-of-living crisis and save money. Read the recommendations on Healthwatch England’s website here.