The Local Government Association and Public Health England are warning that not enough is known about about the health and wellbeing of people living in the countryside as official statistics are “failing to paint an accurate picture”.
In the joint report ‘Health in rural areas’, the bodies warn that this lack of information is “masking pockets of significant deprivation and poor health” and stress that one sixth of areas with the worst health and deprivation levels in the country are located in rural areas.
Councils say they are facing increasing pressures in meeting the needs of an ageing population in the countryside, where just 80 percent of rural residents live within 4km of a GP surgery compared with 98 percent of the urban population, and just 55 percent of households compared to 97 percent of urban ones are within 8km of a hospital.
The LGA, which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales, says the government must make improvements to how it collates data to capture the health of rural communities, which is essential of councils are to effectively plan service provision and better meet people's health needs.
"Rural communities are also increasingly older, and older people often experience worse health and have greater need of health and care services,” said Councillor Izzi Seccombe, chairman of the LGA's Community Wellbeing Board.
"We are also concerned that the make do attitude and reluctance to make a fuss of some older rural residents means they may not seek out health care or treatment when they need it,” as “this stores up worse problems for later on where they require far more serious and emergency care.
"The health of our rural residents is just as important as those in our towns and cities. They must not be forgotten or left behind."
Commenting on the report, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners said: “With our population ageing, and our patients routinely living with more than one long term condition, demand for our service has soared in recent years, but investment in general practice has actually dropped and our workforce hasn’t risen in step. GP practices in remote and rural areas often report difficulties in recruiting enough GPs and practice staff needed to meet this rise in patient demand.”
But she also noted that measures to address growing demand in under-resourced areas are already being taken. “Health Education England’s targeted recruitment campaign offering bursaries to GPs to train and practise in under-doctored areas was piloted in a number of rural areas and early signs are that it has been a success. We need to see more schemes like this, to ensure that our patients have good access to general practice services, wherever they live.”