Older rural populations 'losing out' on funding
Health trusts across the region could lurch from one crisis to another unless funding which currently favours the urban young over ageing rural populations is ditched.
The warning was delivered by Professor Sheena Asthana, an expert in health policy at the University of Plymouth, who said the consequences of failing to act were alarming.
She spoke after an unprecedented month so far in the Westcountry which saw one hospital declare a major incident and others put on a state of high alert after being almost overwhelmed by emergency admissions while suffering high levels of bed blocking and an outbreak of the norovirus.
There was further bad news delivered to patients in Cornwall after a scathing National Audit Office report was delivered on the county's out-of-hours GP service, which is run by private firm Serco.
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However, Professor Asthana said the real culprit was the complex formula used by the Department of Health, which left areas like the Westcountry scrambling for cash.
"It is a total disaster area," she said.
"What we have is a deeply flawed funding formula which underestimates the effect of age in favour of the effect of deprivation.
"The fact is that matters will only get worse in the South West as the older population grows in numbers."
According to academic papers written by Professor Asthana, the difference in funding is stark and worrying, with urban areas, mainly in London, which feature large, younger populations and therefore lower rates of chronic disease, enjoying generous funding.
On the other side of the coin, because of the way the Department of Health allocates cash, rural areas like Devon, Cornwall and Dorset, which have booming populations of people over retirement age, are comparatively starved.
In Torbay, where 11.7% of the population is over 75, funding per head in 2010-11 was £1,747. However, in the inner London borough of Tower Hamlets, where just 3.4% of the population is over 75, the funding per head is £2,084.
The difference is writ large in terms of spending on cancer, with the total spend per cancer patient in Torbay £5,000 and in Dorset £4,075 compared to an astonishing £13,087 in Tower Hamlets.
Professor Asthana said since 2002 flaws in formulating funding had skewed the Government's approach, leading to a situation where "areas grappling with the highest burdens of chronic illness and disability do not receive the highest NHS allocations".
She said there appeared to be no appetite for change in Westminster.
"What we have is a history of chronic underfunding and sadly at the moment there is no sign that is going to be addressed."