Are we missing the point about economic inactivity?
There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about the large numbers of people not working - often referred to as “economically inactive” - due to long-term sickness in the UK. In summer 2022, there were around 2.5 million people in this situation, of whom roughly 1.6 million were over 50.
And while there’s a lot of talk around how to help people back to work using economic means - tax allowances and enabling people to keep their disability benefits are just some of the possibilities that are potentially being considered - there is less about what can be done to tackle the health conditions behind this issue.
As important as it is to make it financially attractive for people to return to work, we have to also ensure that their health is at the forefront - after all, a better tax situation isn’t going to help someone manage arthritis in their hands. Unfortunately, the health system in the UK is under stress. Referral treatment time has almost doubled in the past three years to around 14 weeks and the current backlog of treatments stands at around six million, meaning that some people with conditions that could be treated cannot be seen.
Effective treatments that people can more easily access and use whether they’re at home or in the office are now more important than ever to improve quality of life and lift the burden on health services.
Why long-term sickness levels are considered a problem
For the government and businesses, the main concern is an economic one. If people aren’t working then they aren’t paying as much tax, plus they may be receiving long-term sickness benefits (of course, people should certainly receive these benefits if they need them). Businesses also lose out if experienced workers cannot or do not want to stay in their jobs, as key skills are lost.
There is also a cost to the health system, with roughly £50.5 billion spent on chronic conditions across health and social care systems in 2019, although how much of this is for people who are not working due to long-term sickness is unclear. Chronic conditions account for the largest spend in the NHS budget, and the proportion will only increase as the general population ages.
Of course, there is also the impact on health for individuals. I’ve suffered from back pain for 30 years, so I know the toll that it can take on you mentally and physically. Many people search for any way they can find to combat their condition, and while they may find solutions that work for them - as I did with bioelectric therapy - it is possible to end up choosing options that range from placebos to being actively harmful.
A brief look at the data on long-term sickness
Thanks to the ONS, we can see the numbers behind the various reasons for economic inactivity due to long-term sickness.
Here’s a look at the categories of long-term sickness and the increases in number of people economically inactive due to each for 2019 - 2022:
- Mental illness and nervous disorders up by 22%
- Depression, bad nerves or anxiety increased during COVID but are now back to the same level as in 2019
- Progressive illness, such as cancer, is up 1%
- Problems connected with the back and neck are up 31%
- Other health problems are up 41%
It is the problems connected with the back and neck that are of particular interest to NuroKor, along with issues such as some of the associated conditions that come with diabetes - neuropathy and poor circulation, for example.
The number of people economically inactive with back and neck problems rose by 62,000 over this period, which the ONS speculated may be due to more people working from home. If this is the case, and given changes to working practices, this number may continue to increase in future.
But it’s not as if these issues can just be attributed to working from home. Chronic back pain was already the leading cause of missed work days, accounting for more than 12 million lost work days per year, a cost of £10 billion annually to the UK economy and it is responsible for 40% of sickness absences in the NHS, so addressing it is a top priority.
Our technology has shown incredible results when it comes to tackling musculoskeletal problems and some nerve-related conditions, and we see great potential for it in helping people improve their quality of life.
Just because people aren’t working, doesn’t mean they want to
One of the striking things about the data is that, although there is so much talk around getting people back into work, a great many do not want to do so.
“In Quarter 2 of 2022, 76% said they did not want to work; 343,000 more people than in 2019. While the percentage of people with long-term sickness who want to work has always been low, since the pandemic it seems to have reduced further.” - ONS
Added to that, “most of those who became inactive because of long-term sickness were already out of the labour market for another reason in the three months prior (69%). Around one in five (19%) were in employment before becoming long-term sick.”
While the focus of government and business is on encouraging some of this large group of people to return to work - understandable due to concerns over the economy - I believe that a different approach needs to be taken. If people don’t want to return to work, then where can the government look to save money? How can businesses tempt people with the right experience and skills to join them?
By giving people more effective means to treat themselves in the community where possible, we will reduce the burden and cost for the health services and improve quality of life for thousands of people.
This is also a chance for companies to pioneer occupational health programmes: offering innovations and the latest developments to their employees. We partnered with a company called Microlink to do just that and provide our technology to their employees - you can read more about one of them, Scott Hurst, and his story here.
The growing weight of chronic illnesses
As we noted earlier, chronic illnesses represent a huge part of annual health expenditure and that’s only set to increase with our ageing population.
The former Public Health England estimated that by 2030 40% of the population would have a work-limiting chronic condition - and that this would be the case for 44% of people aged 50-64. Comparing this to the data on economic inactivity, 60% of those economically inactive due to long-term sickness were aged over 50.
So where do health services go from here?
Looking at the long term
In 2019, the NHS revealed its Long Term Plan for continuing to improve care and adapt to future demands.
There are naturally many important areas to it, but the ones that are particularly relevant here are the emphasis on community care, helping people to live independently, the further use and development of technology, and prevention.
New programmes - like community health teams - and ways to access health services - such as digital appointments - are central to this vision and will enable more people to access care from their own homes and do so earlier in disease progression. But the very nature of chronic conditions is that they often cannot be cured, only managed, so even if more people are diagnosed and given treatment in the community, developing new and effective ways to manage these conditions will remain of high importance.
It’s my belief - and this probably comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with me or NuroKor - that technology will unlock the next great step in healthcare. The NHS recognises this as well and implemented the Medtech funding mandate to support the development of new health technologies and bring them to market. With millions of pounds already saved by diagnostic and treatment technologies, this mandate looks set to generate great results through improving patient outcomes and saving money.
Tying this all back to long-term sickness and economic inactivity
Obviously, long-term sickness is a complex issue, but reducing the discussion to whether people are in work or not misses what, in my opinion, is the primary concern. Namely, that providing therapies that effectively manage chronic conditions in a way that saves money for the individual and health services and reduces the burden on health professionals will have significant economic, social and health benefits.
Investing in and developing the solutions now will also have more impact in the long run - particularly important when the population is older - than the various financial measures that could be used to incentivise a return to work.
Regardless of whether someone wishes to work, this approach will lead to better healthcare and more comfortable lives for all. And, if people do want to work, then these solutions will make it easier for them to do so.
Technology - the future of healthcare
Wearable technology that can be tailored to an individual’s needs will be at the forefront of this healthtech revolution - not only meeting the NHS’s desire to offer patients “more personalised therapeutic options”, but also giving patients greater control over their health.
And these are objectives that sit at the heart of NuroKor’s mission. We are creating non-invasive, drug-free therapies for some of the most intractable health challenges and conditions. We develop unique formulations of therapeutic electrical currents that can be applied to the body to manage pain, promote wound healing, optimise recovery and more. You can read more about it on our Science and Technology pages.
Considering the large range of issues that our electrotherapy technology can help manage, we see great potential to build on our existing successes in the near future and bring relief to more people. A similar, more limited form of this technology, which uses electrical stimulation to tackle migraines and cluster headaches, was included in the 2021/22 Medtech funding mandate.
Ultimately, dealing with long-term sickness is a challenge that will be with us for some time yet. Tackling the cause - illness - rather than the symptom - economic inactivity - will yield greater results over time.