Death rates by council area show 'shocking' variations, says Hunt

11 Jun 13
Variations in avoidable death rates in England are ‘shocking’ and councils need to act to tackle them, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said.

Longer lives, published today by Public Health England, revealed that people in the North of England had a higher risk of early death than those in the South.

The agency has broken down early death rates by council area across four major killers – cancer, heart disease and stroke, lung disease and liver disease. Using a ‘traffic light’ rating system, PHE ranked areas with a high number of avoidable deaths as red, those that were near average as yellow, and those with low numbers green.

In the North, 42 council areas are assessed as ‘red’, compared with just 31 in the Midlands and the South, including ten in London.

The report also revealed differences in mortality rates between similar areas. For example, Rotherham and Redcar & Cleveland are highlighted as having better rates than comparably poor areas, while affluent Bracknell Forest and Central Bedfordshire have the worst rates of premature deaths.

Local authorities become responsible for public health spending in their area following the introduction of the government’s NHS reforms in April. Working with Clinical Commissioning Groups through local Health and Wellbeing Boards, councils have to develop plans to improve the health of their local communities, such as smoking cessation programmes and improved diet advice.

Publishing the survey, Hunt said the ‘shocking variation’ in early and unnecessary deaths across England could 'not continue unchecked’.

He said the data on premature deaths would give councils insight into the situations they have inherited, and would allow them to identify areas of concern and take action.

‘I want areas to use the data released today to identify local public health challenges like smoking, drinking and obesity and to take action to help achieve our ambition for saving 30,000 lives a year by 2020.

‘Being more transparent will also allow professionals and the public to see how their local area is performing over time, allowing them to intervene and make improvements happen,’ he added.

Professor John Newton, chief knowledge officer at PHE, said the report provided a clear picture of health in local areas, which would allow improvements to be planned.

However, the Local Government Association urged ministers not to use the data to rank the performance of councils.

Zoe Patrick, chair of the LGA’s community wellbeing board, said the information would provide ‘some useful insight into the serious public health challenges facing councils and help us identify local priorities’. 

But she said the data should be used with caution. ‘Using it out of context to create any sort of national league table dangerously oversimplifies matters and ignores the very complex socio-economic and cultural factors that affect the premature mortality rate.

‘Attempts to measure performance and rank councils in this way are therefore deeply troubling.’

She added: 'It will take years before initiatives from councils lead to any reduction in those suffering with conditions like cancer or heart disease.'


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