Anna Nightingale, VP Head R&D, EMEA at GSK Consumer Healthcare, argues that we need to start focussing on prevention – empowering citizens to take ownership of their health by being health literate if the UK is to overcome the bleak state of the nation’s health
It’s a well-known fact that we do not appreciate our health until we’re unwell – or, perhaps, until we’re confronted with a once-in-a-generation global pandemic. With our busy pre-lockdown diaries, it often seemed easier to react to symptoms after they emerged – taking a quick trip to the pharmacy for painkillers, gel to ease aching muscles or something to soothe an upset stomach.
However, as the virus spread and the pace of life slowed for many over the last year, attention has rightly turned to nurture healthy habits to improve long-term wellbeing. This is precisely what health experts around the world have been calling for institutions and policymakers to prioritise since long before COVID-19: a public health strategy based on prevention.
Harnessing pandemic habits to improve health literacy
In the midst of the pandemic, GSK Consumer Healthcare (GSK CH) and Ipsos published a study revealing that two-thirds (65%) of people across Europe were now more likely to consider their day-to-day health in decision-making, with 68% of the UK population taking extra precautions to avoid potential transmission in light of the outbreak.
This shift in thinking provides a renewed opportunity for the private and public sectors to work together, empowering people to look after their health proactively and improve their self-care habits.
Educating the public will be critical to achieving this; despite 80% of Europeans wanting to take charge of their health, only 20% felt confident to do so (GSK CH and Vintura ‘Health Economic Benefits of Self-Care in Europe study).
This will not be education for education’s sake; better health literacy alleviates pressure on frontline NHS staff so they can focus on other serious health issues. In the UK alone, 18 million GP visits every year are for conditions that could be treated at home with over-the-counter products. In the UK, the average length of a consultation is around 10 minutes; that’s 3 million hours that could be spent on other patients.
Then consider that the UK has one of the shortest average GP appointment times amongst economically advanced nations. If a prevention-led approach to public health was adopted around the world, the time savings for health services would be enormous. If we’re saving time, we’re saving resources, and we’re saving lives.
Investing in prevention
When tackling public health issues in the past, such as smoking, obesity, and even Covid-19 vaccine concerns, we’ve seen huge success when charities, media, government and private companies work together to engage diverse communities. We must replicate this collaborative model to redefine how citizens perceive “self-care”, increasing awareness of how to responsibly use over the counter treatments and build everyday resilience.
Firstly, we need to see the UK government invest more in prevention, increasing funding in programmes that improve health literacy. According to the King’s Fund, funding for health services in England during the pandemic was at £212.2 billion. Yet only 1.5% of this goes towards supporting the NHS public health services, which focus in part on prevention.
Prioritising investment in prevention makes fiscal sense, too. Our data shows we could save the NHS £810 million per year on unnecessary GP appointments for self-treatable conditions, and a further £518 million on unnecessary Emergency Department visits.
The power of pharmacists
The UK benefits from an agile regulatory framework, which smoothly transitions treatments from prescription-only to make them available over the counter, if extensive research finds it safe and advantageous to do so.
Despite this, a clear gap persists between the excellent availability of medicine in the UK, and levels of consumer health literacy. This is what makes consumers feel they have no option but to book a GP appointment when their conditions are self-treatable.
One promising solution is making better use of our pharmacists. According to GSK CH’s research, pharmacies are the most accessible healthcare facility across Europe, with 58% of Europeans living within 5 minutes walking distance of a community pharmacy.
Pharmacists play an essential role at the forefront of intervention-led care. In the last year, GSK CH research showed that Europeans were more willing to ask their pharmacist for advice more often, reflecting a growing realisation that we must take our health into our own hands expressly to relieve pressure on healthcare systems (77% of respondents agreed with this).
At GSK CH, we’re committed to supporting pharmacists across the world to deliver their vital work in unprecedented times and beyond. The first step in this commitment is developing a 3-year program – designed with pharmacists from around the world – to help them to sustain their efforts through policy activity and practical tools.
Our support for pharmacists also includes the work we do through our GSK Shopper Science Lab, which increases our pharmacy partners’ understanding of how their customers perceive their products, are influenced by packaging, and interact with their store layout and staff. By using cutting-edge technology such as VR and biometrics, we are helping these often-unsung frontline health workers to connect with people more meaningfully than ever before.
As society begins to rebuild itself, there is an opportunity to reset our health attitudes and build our collective resilience. With such a wealth of knowledge on our doorsteps, it’s through this type of industry collaboration and trust-building that we can educate people around the world on how to keep themselves, their families and their communities safer and healthier.