There’s a growing awareness that Covid-19 will leave a trail of health implications in its wake. 

Stuart McDonald
Head of Demographic Assumptions and Methodology
15 February 2021
5 min read

Scottish Widows has partnered with Tortoise Media to explore these implications – from what it means for the funding of the NHS to the inequality that has been reinforced by the pandemic – and of course that critical question – are we ready for the next one?

With 24% of Britons saying they haven’t booked, or have delayed an appointment because they didn’t want to put pressure on the NHS and 35% saying they would now be less likely to visit their GP with a health concern compared to 12 months ago, it’s clear that action is needed – the question we’re hoping to answer is what that would look like... 

Why are people staying away from their GP practice?

Our recent research painted a clear picture of why. Since the pandemic hit in March last year, almost one quarter (24%) of Britons haven’t booked or have delayed a required appointment because they didn’t want to add pressure on the NHS.

Top reasons to push back or cancel medical appointments include being concerned about visiting a public space (16%), personal preference of timings (13%) and not thinking symptoms were serious enough (13%).

Worryingly, more than a third (35%) say that they would now be less likely to visit their GP if they had a concern over their health in the next few weeks than they would have 12 months ago.

One quarter (24%) would not feel comfortable having a video or telephone consultation, demonstrating the difficulties of digital inclusion.

Who’s most at risk of missing out on treatment?

Covid isn’t equal, and we’ve seen the pandemic disproportionately impact specific age ranges and communities. For example, research shows that there’s a lack of trust in the healthcare system within BAME communities, with only 57% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds being willing to accept the Covid-19 vaccination that is currently being rolled out. This will have an impact on their resilience to Covid, which could further impound the health implications of delayed treatments and missed diagnoses.

There are a few complex factors in play which mean delayed treatments and missed diagnoses are hitting a range of age groups as well. Our research showed that almost one in five (18%) of over 55s haven’t booked or delayed a required medical appointment since March because they didn’t think their symptoms were serious enough to see a GP.

It’s not just the health of the over 50s being affected by the pandemic either. Younger people in the 18-34 age bracket are the group most likely to put off seeking medical help: 17% of them experienced a medical concern since March but did not book an appointment.

In addition, many people are still sceptical of digital appointments. One quarter (24%) would not feel comfortable having a video or telephone consultation, demonstrating the difficulties of digital inclusion.

What does the long term look like? At this point we are not sure and that is exactly why we must wake up to the issues we are facing here and now to minimise the long-term impact of the pandemic. At Scottish Widows, we’re extremely concerned by the story our data tells.

Claims for nearly every type of cancer have fallen below expected levels; by the end of June 2020 there was a 22% reduction in the amount of critical illness claims received.

Breast and testicular cancers saw a 25% reduction in claims compared to a 50% claims reduction for brain, gynaecological and skin cancers. There was a 100% claims reduction for ear, nose and throat cancers.

 

What does this mean for the nation’s health?

Whilst absolute numbers from one insurance provider may be low, when considered across the whole of the NHS, they do indicate that people are being diagnosed later (or worse, not diagnosed at all) and that this is a real threat that will ultimately add more strain on the healthcare service in the long run, not to mention leaving affected families in financial hardship.

What does our research tell us?

Attitudes to visiting a GP during the pandemic*

  • Since the pandemic hit in March last year, almost one quarter (24%) of Britons haven’t booked, or delayed, a required appointment because they didn’t want to add pressure on the NHS.
  • Other top reasons to push back or cancel medical appointments include being concerned about visiting a public space (16%), personal preference of timings (13%) and not thinking symptoms were serious enough (13%).
  • More than a third (35%) say that they would now be less likely to visit their GP if they had a concern over their health in next few weeks than they would have 12 months ago
  • 18-34 year olds are the group most likely to put off seeking medical help: 17% experienced a medical concern since March but did not book an appointment.
  • Of those aged 55+, 18% didn’t book or delayed a required medical appointment because they didn’t think their symptoms were serious enough to see a GP.
  • When it comes to digital appointments, while many people are open to this as an alternative format (49%), a quarter (24%) would not feel comfortable having a video or telephone consultation (24%).

Monitoring personal health

  • On discovering a lump or cause for concern, one quarter (24%) of people would opt to delay the appointment as far as possible due to concerns over Covid-19. This rises to 40% for 18-34 year olds (24% for 35-54 year olds, 13% for 55+).
  • With a reluctance to attend medical appointments, four in 10 (41%) Brits have taken steps to monitor their own health since the start of the pandemic due to the impact on the healthcare system.
  • Alarmingly, of those aged 55+, seven in 10 (71%) have not taken any new measures to monitor their own health during the pandemic.
  • A fifth (20%) chose to research any non-Covid-19 symptoms online rather than accessing a healthcare professional, 14% checked their body more frequently for changes and 13% invested in equipment to monitor their health more closely.
  • Only 8% of people have looked to sources other than their GP for medical advice, such as NHS 24 or 11 (8%) or their insurance provider (3%).
  • In fact, none of the respondents aged 55+ turned to their insurance provider for advice.

Managing finances during a period of ill health

  • Whilst the pandemic continues, it doesn’t mean other health concerns have ceased. Since March, 17% say they or a family member have been diagnosed with a serious illness for the first time, with 8% saying they know someone who has been diagnosed with cancer.
  • If they, or the other main wage earner in their house were to become unemployed, Brits estimate their savings would last, on average, 6.4 months.
  • One in eight (12%) would be able to fall back on another source of income within their household but the same proportion (12%) state that they don’t have any personal savings.
  • Despite this, just 6% have a critical illness policy and 5% have an income protection policy in place if they were unable to work due to an accident or sickness or unemployment.

On discovering a lump or cause for concern

24% of people 

would opt to delay the appointment


What can we do to support the nation’s health in the pandemic?

Raising awareness alone is not enough, but it’s certainly the first step. There needs to be shared acknowledgment from all parties that while the Covid pandemic appears front and centre, in the background people are fighting their own battles with other health conditions and worse still, many people are going about their day to day lives undiagnosed.

The best thing that someone with serious health concerns can do is to book an appointment with their GP practice as usual, or call NHS 111 to discuss their symptoms. Some employers may offer health or critical illness insurance products as part of a benefits package, though it may be that some companies to not advertise this clearly to employees. Insurance policy holders may also not be aware of the range or services available to them, and so would not think to call their insurer to discuss a problem.

Though Covid is currently putting enormous strain on our healthcare systems, there is still a need for health providers across the public and private spectrum to reach out and encourage people to still seek medical help, even during the pandemic. Finding problems early can help to mitigate how serious they can get further down the line, but with the nation consistently putting off seeking help and diagnosis, we are seriously at risk of emerging from one health crisis and plunging straight into another. 

 


 

* Scottish Widows Critical Care research findings

Research provider: Opinium Research

Sample: 2,002 Nat Rep UK adults

Fieldwork dates: 8–11 January 2021

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