Cuts to public health: why spending less will cost the NHS more

With public health and prevention in the news, Charlotte Paddison talks about the implications of getting it wrong and the importance of getting it right – for people’s health and for NHS finances.

Blog post

Published: 12/07/2017

The Five Year Forward View articulated the need for a ‘radical upgrade in public health and prevention’, but government policy has not delivered. Public health budgets have been cut by £200 million in recent years and, as shown by the King’s Fund, there is more to come. Is spending less on public health likely to store up problems for the NHS in the future? And what exactly needs to be done to turn things around?

Measuring our success so far

Success or failure in delivering a positive vision for public health manifests itself in the health of our population. The evidence is somewhat bleak. 

More than one in four adults in the UK (26 per cent) are obese. If current trends persist, within 20 years one in 10 people will develop Type 2 diabetes. One in five reception-class children in England are now obese or overweight, with children in the most deprived areas twice as likely to be obese than those in the wealthiest regions. 

This is bad news for individuals, and it is also bad news for the long-term financial sustainability of the NHS.

Prevention is also important in mental health. Almost a quarter (23 per cent) of children and teenagers have difficulty accessing mental health services – in particular early intervention and mental health prevention. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of A&E attendances due to psychiatric conditions or self-harm among young people more than doubled. Prevention and early intervention is key – half of all mental ill health starts before the age of 14, with three-quarters of it developing by the age of 18. 

Public health: A good return on investment?

The short answer (spoiler alert) seems to be yes. 

Evidence shows public health interventions offer good pay-back both for better health and wellbeing and for NHS finances. For every £1 spent, the monetary value of the benefit from such interventions is estimated to be around £14.

Investing to improve the population’s health makes economic sense. It is estimated that, in the UK, obesity – which increases risk of diabetes and cancer – costs the NHS £5.1 billion, smoking costs £3.3 billion, alcohol costs £3.5 billion and physical inactivity costs £0.9 billion. These drivers of demand on our health system are amenable to change. Investing in public health initiatives has an important role to play in changing the way people behave, in order to improve health at a population level.

Can public health interventions help manage rising demand for health care?

Yes – they do this through the maintenance of good health and the avoidance of illness. This includes helping people to avoid getting ill in the first place (primary prevention) and, for those who do become unwell, helping to ensure they don’t get worse (secondary prevention). Evidence shows well-designed community-based interventions targeting falls prevention among older people, for example, are highly cost effective. They can reduce hospital activity and deliver cost savings within one to two years.

Paradoxically, spending less on public health now has the potential to add billions of pounds to future NHS service costs. 

So why doesn’t the bottom line reflect this?

Public health budgets have historically been viewed as soft targets. Getting policy ‘buy in’ is difficult because public health often – though not exclusively – delivers health pay-offs in the longer term. Thus the benefits of policies that focus on prevention will frequently outlive the existence of their political architects.

The challenge to securing political interest is compounded because, in comparison with attention to problems in acute care and social care, disinvestment in public health is less visible. The effects of austerity are more easily felt by the public, and more immediately discernible, when impact is measured in accident and emergency targets or lengthening waits for surgery.   

What next?

What is needed now is a clear and credible plan for increasing resilience and the prevention of ill health, backed by a sustained financial commitment.

Improving population health starts with building communities with resilient children. More could be done to comprehensively and effectively address childhood obesity, such as through measures to tackle the aggressive marketing of junk food – on TV and online, and through sponsorships and price promotions – to children. 

A policy focus on promoting resilience and mental health among young people is needed. School-based interventions that encourage safe participation in increasingly complex digital environments could play a useful role in this.

Policy initiatives should address the importance of choice architecture – that is, the potential to change behaviour by altering the environments within which people make choices. This could usefully draw on empirical work showing that the placement of food, alcohol and tobacco products can influence their selection and consumption. An example would be the Government’s agreement with supermarkets not to display alcohol at shop entrances.

Investing in prevention and public health is not only good for the health of individuals: it is a core pillar of any comprehensive strategy for a financially sustainable future for the NHS.   

Cuts to public health are likely to lead to more not less pressure on the NHS in the long term. We ignore this at our collective peril.  

Suggested citation

Paddison C (2017) ‘Cuts to public health: why spending less will cost the NHS more’. Nuffield Trust comment.