Helen Barratt is feeling the pinch

Helen BarrattLast week I found myself at a conference on multidisciplinary teamwork in the NHS, and one of the keynote speakers observed that the main benefit of the “credit crunch” is that bankers have overtaken healthcare professionals as the most hated profession in the country. The media is full of stories of doom, as the banking system lurches from one crisis to the next. However the comment got me thinking about the wider health impact of both the current financial situation, and the recession we seem to be entering.

It shouldn’t be, but staying healthy seems to get more and more expensive. Klaus Morales wrote the other week about the challenges of trying to keep fit whilst working as a junior doctor, and I’m sure he’s not alone. My job is almost totally sedentary (despite working in public health!) and the only way I get anywhere near enough exercise is, as for Klaus, the odd snatched hour in the gym at the end of the day.

But the gym subscription is a luxury, and – for many people – will probably be the first thing to go when the credit crunch bites. The London borough where I live has the highest exercise levels in the city, but this is due in part to the green spaces we have access to. Jogging along the river is likely to get less appealing for many people once the winter sets in and it’s dark by 5pm. Perhaps rising oil prices will drive us all out of our cars and off public transport, on to our bicycles or walking. But for many the journey is simply too far.

Alongside fuel, food prices are also on the increase. I’m not going to try and predict the impact that this will have on the health of different sectors in society. However, with less money to go round, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that the general quality of our diets might decline. For example, getting a vegetable box delivered to our home forces us to eat more greens than we might otherwise, but this again is a dispensable luxury. Supermarket veg seldom lasts, and for many it’s simply too time-consuming to prepare anyway.

As a nation we’re apparently eating out less, but this is tempered by rising profits for pizza takeaways etc. Perhaps the one glimmer of hope from a public health perspective is the continued rise in the price of alcohol. Credit crunch special offers of “3 bottles for £10” don’t help much though.

This is obviously totally unscientific: pure conjecture, with a healthy dose of speculation. I’m sure there are possible scenarios I’ve missed. And a large part of the work of public health is health promotion, but in our current ‘cash rich, time poor’ society, for many of us healthy living seems to come at a price. I wonder how long this can continue?