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Improving health inequalities and challenges faced by women in East London and beyond

Blog 22 June 2017

By Professor Lesley Regan, RCOG President 

Improving the health and life chances of women and their babies are issues very close to my heart, so it was a real honour to launch the new Barts Research Centre for Women’s Health earlier this month.

Barts Charity has awarded £2m to this new pioneering centre with a leading research programme that will focus on the health of women before, during and after pregnancy, and to give their babies the best possible start in life in East London and beyond. 

The ethnically diverse population of East London has a significantly increased risk of maternal and newborn complications, including diabetes, where it has the highest rates in England with 10-15% of local mothers developing it in pregnancy. The new centre will create visibility at a national level too, addressing problems in mothers who need it most and helping to put findings into clinical practice across the country.

Reducing health inequality and tackling the challenges faced by women across East London, as well as nationally and globally is of particular importance, and I feel that there is no better place to start tackling these issues than in Tower Hamlets – which is one of the most deprived districts in England. London is a leading world city but it also has some of the starkest inequalities in health in the UK. To paint a clear picture: women in Kensington and Chelsea in south-west London live 15 years longer in good or very good health than women in Tower Hamlets.

Every girl and woman should be able to lead a healthy life, no matter where they are born, how wealthy their parents are, or where they went to school. But we know that a woman’s life expectancy and ability to lead a healthy life is dictated in large part by the economic circumstances she was born into and the education she receives.

The wealthier your parents are, the longer your life expectancy. And the poorer your family is, the more likely you are to develop heart disease or have a stroke at an earlier age.

It is not just wealth that impacts your chance of leading a healthy life - postcode inequality does too. 'Fair society, healthy lives', more widely known as ‘The Marmot Review’ after its author Professor Sir Michael Marmot, has been highly influential in the debate on health inequalities policy since its publication in 2010. The iconic chart, referred to as ‘the Marmot curve’, shows how life expectancy and disability-free life expectancy are systematically and consistently related to differences in income deprivation across thousands of small areas in England.

Tower Hamlets and Newham are two of the most deprived boroughs in London. They have seen a dramatic population change in recent decades, with Tower Hamlets growing faster than any other local authority in the country. The Borough’s population growth over the next 10 years is equivalent to 18 new residents per day. This has created an East London which is ethnically and socio economically diverse, with specific and often challenging healthcare needs.

Many residents have unique needs such as specific language requirements, and need culturally appropriate healthcare access, and interventions than can be easily integrated into their day-to-day lives. For example, a third of the population in East London use languages other than English as their main language and over 50% are black or minority ethnic.

The Borough also has the highest proportion of young people in England - half the population in Tower Hamlets are aged between 20-39 years. It also has worse than average rates of sexually transmitted infections and TB, and the highest percent of children living in income deprived households in England in Tower hamlets.

Inequalities in health are not self-correcting, and the role of wider determinants, lifestyles and services need to be addressed together rather than in isolation from – or in opposition to – each other.

We know that health services can only fix a third of the problem and that changes to lifestyles and reducing health inequalities contributes the remaining two thirds. There is an enormous amount that we can and must do. Of course it will not be easy but we must start today, since there is not a moment to lose.  I am today excited by the potential of this new centre for women’s health research to make a real difference in the immediate local communities, as well as impacting on healthcare on a broader national scale.

I was asked the question: “Why do we need a centre for women’s health in London?” The answer is simple. The health of a nation is determined by the health of its girls and women.


The above text is based on Professor Lesley Regan’s opening speech at the official launch of the new Barts Research Centre for Women’s Health.