Population boom piles pressure on NHS

FEARS have been voiced about the “immense strain” Suffolk's growing population could put on depleted health services in the county - as a raft of NHS cuts are given the go-ahead.

FEARS have been voiced about the “immense strain” Suffolk's growing population could put on depleted health services in the county - as a raft of NHS cuts are given the go-ahead.

As some of the county's community hospitals face closure or swingeing bed cuts, the region's Health Atlas - looking at health trends in the East - shows the population is rising at double the national rate.

The bulging number of people, with major growth hubs in areas such as the Ipswich Waterfront, was already named as one of the biggest challenges facing health services in the county.

But now the Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt has forced through the closure of Felixstowe's Bartlet Hospital and the axing of 16 beds at Aldeburgh Hospital.


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It comes after the two acute hospitals in the county, at Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds, have already seen bed closures. With Ipswich Hospital being more than £16million in the red, the fears are that more services could be cut.

St Leonard's Hospital, in Sudbury, could also close under the plans for west Suffolk, and proposals to axe inpatient beds at the Walnuttree Hospital, in Sudbury, could be referred to Ms Hewitt when they are discussed again in September.

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Dr Janet Massey, secretary of the Suffolk branch of the British Medical Association, said last night the rising population and the latest cuts in services would put an “immense strain” on healthcare.

She added: “It is not yet obvious how that's being planned for at the moment apart from the story that we will have care in your own home and you can pay for your own help, which is the biggest worry.”

The third edition of the Health Atlas shows that by 2021, the number of people aged over 85 is expected to swell by more than 80% in five of the seven local authority areas in Suffolk, with mid Suffolk facing the highest estimated growth at nearly 90%.

But projections show that the number of young people in the county could radically change the demographic.

It is predicted that Forest Heath will have a 47% increase in 0 to 19-year-olds, compared to the region's average of just 4.4%, while Suffolk Coastal is expected to see its younger population drop by 11.2%.

Dr Brian Keeble, director of public health at the Suffolk East Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) and lead director for the Suffolk Public Health Network, said: “The population is getting older and if it carries on the current prevalence of chronic diseases, like heart disease and cancer, are going to place demand on the health service.”

Based on data from the PCTs and local authorities, the Health Atlas gives a snapshot of health problems in particular areas, comparing them to the region and England as a whole.

It helps in the planning of health services as well as spotlighting diseases that need targeting and areas that need more resources.

But this is the last time that key health-related data in the three counties will be mapped out in this way, because of the shake-up in the boundaries of the SHA and PCTs, which will inevitably lead to more work for analysts.

The alarming link between health and wealth in the region is highlighted again in this year's Health Atlas.

Although the life expectancy at birth of men and women in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire is higher than that for England, the SHA said the “inequality gap” is increasing.

Great Yarmouth, named as one of the most deprived places in the UK, is still experiencing high levels of health problems that consistently outstrip the regional and national averages.

But other issues are emerging in the region that require urgent action.

The prevalence of smoking has not decreased and the SHA says a “radical step-change” is required to meet targets, while teenage pregnancy rates are also not falling fast enough to achieve the prescribed 50% reduction by 2010.

Smoking prevalence in Ipswich and Waveney are above national and regional averages, while conception rates among 15 to 17-year-olds in the same areas are around 20% higher than the rest of Suffolk.

The number of deaths from prostate cancer is above the England and three-county averages in three out of the five PCTs.

The SHA said it will investigate this further but it is being attributed to the age of the population in the county as well as the lack of a screening programme, as its benefits are still yet to be determined.

Central Suffolk PCT has emerged as an area with a high rate of deaths from breast cancer, at 83.4 per 100,000 women compared to the rest of Suffolk, which is in the 60s.

“I think when you are picking two to three years of figures you can get distortion,” Dr Keeble said.

“Our work over the years shows cancer is more common but the death rates from cancer are going down. When you look at a small number of years you might get a couple of bad years that will throw the figures and then in another year it might go in the opposite direction.

“It needs to have a health warning on interpreting what is in the report.”

The SHA said the trends for both heart disease and cancer targets are “encouraging” in the region but death rates from accidents are a “cause for concern” and the area's performance on male suicide is “less promising”.

The rising cases of sexually transmitted diseases needs to be addressed, it said.

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