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Advocate spells out links between poverty and ill health

Julian Disney: "We've got to look at the underlying causes of why people are having health problems."
Julian Disney: "We've got to look at the underlying causes of why people are having health problems." Photo: Andrew Meares

The national chair of anti-poverty week says a wide-ranging approach is needed to overcome the close link between poverty and health inequality.

Julian Disney said a mainstream approach to healthcare such as preventative care and good access to affordable doctors was not enough to tackle the problem alone.

"If that's all we do, we'll just be trying to hold back the flow, in a sense, almost putting a finger in the dyke. We've got to look at the underlying causes of why people are having health problems," he said.

Professor Disney spoke about the relationship between poverty and ill heath at the Social Determinants of Health Alliance's first anti-poverty week oration in Canberra on Tuesday. 

"It's self-reinforcing so you get a health problem that can lead to poverty, the poverty leads you to have another health problem and you go round and round in a downward spiral," he said.

Research shows the higher a person's income or education, the better their health tended to be. 

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"Housing, location and transport and the way in which now we've increasingly got disadvantaged people who are disadvantaged in those ways is having a bad impact on health and a domino effect really on most of the other circumstances of life," he said.

"Ill health is often the cause of poverty and leads to the loss of a job or inability to earn much and it can lead to the deterioration of a relationship, which is often what pitches people into poverty.

"Of course there's a link the other way of poverty leading to ill health. One of the factors there is often the food that's consumed is not as nutritious. If people are struggling to survive, and especially if they're struggling to get to and from whatever work they can get, they tend to be going for fast-foods and those are often very poor nutritionally."

Professor Disney said the face of poverty was no longer just about wealth as it might have been three or four decades ago. 

He said there was now a close correlation between unemployment and disability and even mental illness.

"A lot of the talk is as if all we need to do is give people some education and pat them on the back and say 'off you go, we've given you an opportunity' but that's missing the mark for a lot of disadvantaged people," he said. 

Social Determinants of Health Alliance chair Michael Moore said it was critical for the group to play a role in anti-poverty week. 

"Poverty is just so fundamental to health outcomes," he said.

"Reports illustrate how important poverty is in undermining good health and for that reason, to highlight that and make sure that when we're thinking about poverty we're also thinking about health, we decided to have an oration in anti-poverty week as a matter of course."