The Department of Health’s fight against health inequalities across the country stepped up a gear last week as it launched a new website to help health services and councils improve life expectancy in the most deprived areas.

Crowned the Health Inequalities Intervention Tool, the interactive website is designed to boost the understanding of primary care trusts, commissioners and local authorities how simple measures can have a significant impact on increasing life expectancy in deprived localities known as ‘spearhead’ areas.

Tackling this problem is a priority for both the government and the National Health Service, and the DH previously set the target of reducing inequalities by 10% - as measured by infant mortality and life expectancy - by 2010. "Our task now,” commented Public Health Minister Dawn Primarolo launching the website, “is to support local NHS and local authority service planners, commissioners and front-line staff to deliver on those targets.”

Dr Bobbie Jacobson, Vice-chair of the Association of Public Health Observatories and Director of the London Health Observatory, added: "Our tool is the first of its kind to provide hard-edged, local evidence to planners and commissioners, on the causes of their life expectancy gap and how it can be reduced. The tool is easy to use and saves local agencies time and analytical effort. More importantly, we hope it will help Spearhead authorities to close the gap."

Gap widening

Life expectancy is on the up across the nation, with the latest figures (based on data from 2003-5) showing average figures of 76.9 years for men and 81.1 years for women. But the gap between deprived areas and the population as a whole is accelerating; in the spearhead areas, life expectancy is significantly less at 74.9 for men and 79.6 for women.

According to the DH, around 13,700 fewer people aged between 30-59 years old would have died in spearhead areas during this time if death rates had been the same as in the rest of country.

In 2003-5, the local authority with the highest life expectancy at birth for males and females was Kensington & Chelsea, at 82.2 years and 86.2 years, while Manchester and Liverpool falls at the other end of the scale with 72.5 years for men and for 78.1 years for women, respectively.

The new website provides information on which diseases are lowering life expectancy in each deprived area, and offers a ‘ready reckoner’ for “high-impact interventions” that will help close the gap quickly. Furthermore, it calculates the number of patents in each area who are likely to need treatment for cardiovascular disease and, as the DH explains, “encouraging those people to present to their GPs or other health services will have a significant impact on their life expectancy, and on the average life expectancy of within their locality.”