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HEE unveils programme to help tackle health inequalities in rural and coastal areas

3 February 2022

Health Education England (HEE) has unveiled plans for a new programme aiming to help tackle health inequalities in rural and coastal areas.

A combination of worsening health, ageing populations, social deprivation and workforce staffing issues are leaving health and care services in these locations facing serious challenges. 

So new HEE plans, based on global evidence, set out an ambition to help reduce ill health and inequalities through education, training and use of digital technology.

It comes as the findings of a three-year parliamentary inquiry this week revealed an urban-rural divide in accessing healthcare. And last year, Chief Medical Officer Sir Chris Whitty warned in his Annual Report 2021 that “there will be a long tail of preventable ill health which will get worse as current populations age”, if the problem is not addressed “vigorously and systematically”.

Under the plans, HEE will launch evidence-based pilots in selected Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) having similar problems attracting, recruiting, and retaining a workforce needed in the face of growing demand.

Rural communities tend to have older populations than urban areas – and with that comes worse health and a greater need for health and care services, while access to these services is often poorer than in urban settings.

HEE’s plans focus on three key pieces of work:

  • Widening participation and access to medical schools, with ambition to increase applications from rural communities
  • Innovative rural and coastal healthcare apprenticeship programmes.
  • Health literacy programmes, such as Digital Ambassadors, to increase digital and health literacy among members of the public.

HEE will work closely with ICS colleagues to utilise existing HEE programmes and tailor them to the needs of each population.

Meanwhile, HEE will also develop solutions to secure the workforce by learning from global research – particularly the importance of a rural upbringing; positive undergraduate clinical and educational experiences in rural settings; and targeted training for rural practice at postgraduate level.

Patrick Mitchell, Director of Innovation, Transformation and Digital at HEE, said: “We know that rural and coastal communities are facing serious health challenges. Services are having to meet the needs of populations with worsening health and range of significant physical and mental health conditions, while also trying to address staffing shortages in key disciplines.

“Addressing longstanding inequalities requires a new vision for professional practice in rural and coastal areas which is locally distributed, community embedded and where education and learning leads to greater collaboration with other partners in health, care, local authorities, and communities.

“HEE’s regional teams will work in collaboration with the ICS pilot areas, supported by HEE’s national teams as appropriate, to establish a targeted and sustained programme of education and training intervention.

“The programme would be designed on a mix of existing proven interventions but be anchored around some key initiatives that internationally have been proven to be effective in sustaining a local community’s recruitment and retention of health professionals.”