Guest Blog: What changing demographics mean to the UK health sector
Greg Holt is the Chief Marketing Officer at Newcross Healthcare, an independent organisation that provides highly trained staff, clinical expertise, and administrative support to the healthcare sector in the UK. He is based in Bristol.
In this post, Greg discusses how the ageing population is impacting the UK healthcare sector, including the need for more funding, staffing and increased loneliness.
Over the last 50 years, the average age of people in the UK has steadily increased. In fact, today, almost 20 percent of people living in the UK are aged 65 or older. This trend is set to continue over the coming decades. Of course, it’s no bad thing that we can expect to live longer than ever before.
However, while a longer lifespan does give us all something to look forward to, the benefits of longer life expectancies do create demands on the healthcare sector. To understand just what this means, let’s take a look at how changing demographics will impact the health sector in the UK.
Impact on the healthcare sector
According to the Office for National Statistics, the population of the UK currently stands at close to 66 million people, with 18.2 percent of the population aged 65 or over. By 2041, the population of the UK is expected to sit at around 71 million, of which approximately 20.7 percent of the population will be 65 or over.
As you are no doubt aware, we are naturally more likely to experience problems such as disability, reduced mobility, and chronic illness as we age. One example of this is increased frailty. Although frailty is not an illness or a condition in itself, it does make recovering from many conditions considerably more difficult.
Frailty also increases the risk of injury in incidents such as falls or other accidents. For this reason, older people are more likely to require emergency medical attention when such an incident occurs. In less extreme cases this might simply involve a trip to A&E, but in severe cases, it might require surgery such as a hip replacement.
Existing data provide an insight into the expected demands that this will place. For example, a 2017 report by Age UK revealed that 46 percent of admissions from A&E in the UK were for people aged 65 and older. Furthermore, these demographic changes will increase the demand for services like carers, who can offer support in the home, hospital beds for long-term treatments, and care homes.
Need for more funding
If a greater proportion of the population is aged 65 or over, that means a smaller proportion are of working age. The relevance of this to the UK health sector cannot be overestimated. Put simply, a smaller percentage of the population working leads to a smaller percentage of the population generating tax revenue. In short, tax revenues are not growing at a fast enough rate to meet the increasing demand for healthcare.
While this is by no means the only source of funding difficulties for the UK health sector, it is nonetheless a major one. This isn’t necessarily an existential threat to the health sector as a whole, but there are a number of changes we may potentially see as a result.
For example, it has been proposed that modern technologies such as AI can provide similar, or even improved, healthcare outcomes for less money. As a result of this, we are likely to see an increased reliance on such technologies, both instead of traditional medicines and in addition to them.
This will, of course, be accompanied by growth in the ‘health-tech’ industry, particularly in the area of research and development. Additionally, the lack of funding increases waiting times in hospitals, which leads to an increasing number of people who can afford to do so ‘going private’.
Increased staffing needs
While technology has the potential to improve efficiency, staffing needs will increase. This will require more carers and nurses. This problem is exacerbated as new workers are not being recruited fast enough, leading to higher workloads for individual care professionals. This leads to greater levels of stress and, in turn, to care workers leaving their jobs to seek more favourable conditions.
This is true of professional at all skill levels in the health sector. These professionals move on to other industries in the UK, as well as to healthcare markets in other countries. Of course, this problem is naturally somewhat endemic, and as such, there isn’t a single clear and easy solution in the long term.
The crux of it, however, is that the UK healthcare sector must make itself a more attractive employment option in order to attract more people, both from the UK and abroad. While one obvious remedy for this is an investment in more staff to reduce workloads, this will likely need to be complemented with other changes.
Some of these may include a greater emphasis on healthcare in the community, to reduce costs caused by conditions escalating to the point of requiring hospitalisation. We’re also likely to see a greater effort put into reducing stress in care professionals, with more attention paid to their mental health and wellbeing.
Other demographic changes
Of course, the ageing population isn’t the only demographic change affecting the UK healthcare sector. Indeed, issues of demographics are always interrelated with other factors. One issue that ties in with the ageing of the UK population is increased urbanisation. More than ever, people are living in large cities. However, this isn’t true of all age brackets. It’s mostly young people who flock to urban environments in search of work.
Older people are less likely to do so and, as such, populations in rural areas and smaller towns are ageing even faster than the national average. This creates unique problems. For example, this means that older people are now more likely to live far away from their adult children. This increases the demand for professional social care as people are less able to care for their elderly parents.
It also leads to the problem of loneliness in older people, which makes them more likely to make unnecessary GP visits. As such, more effort will need to be put into combating loneliness in older people in the UK health sector.
Of course, we’re very lucky today. We can expect to live longer than at any point in history. All the same, this raises serious challenges for the UK health sector.
In light of this, we need creative thinking and focus on an integrated healthcare system that benefits more of us as we live longer. An important step to achieving this is recognising the complex nature of these challenges.