Health of poor an urgent case as Leung prepares policy address

Study linking poverty to high blood pressure and other medical issues highlights need for chief executive to focus on problem in policy address

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 1:53pm

Pressure is mounting on the chief executive to make poverty alleviation a focus of his maiden policy address this month, with new research setting out in stark detail how being poor affects health and family life.

Hong Kong's poor suffer a host of health problems, are the unhappiest people in the city and grapple with more family woes than wealthier residents, according to a study conducted by the University of Hong Kong's school of public health between March 2009 and March 2011.

It covered about 20,500 people in 8,400 households.

The study showed a linear relationship between blood pressure and income. The poor were inclined to suffer from high blood pressure, the No 1 chronic disease around the world.

Workers who made less than HK$3,000 a month recorded blood pressure of between 81 and 140 millimetres of mercury (mmHg), while those who earned more than HK$60,000 a month had a range of 78 to 122 mmHg.

This linear relationship also appeared in workers' self-assessments of bodily health, happiness and family harmony. But the researchers noted that even if a person was poor, harmonious family relationships could alleviate negative emotions.

Professor Gabriel Leung, head of community medicine at HKU's school of public health, also noted that the "inverse care law" holds true in the city. The law states that people with the least need for health care tend to use medical services more often.

"The richest use medical services more frequently, but the chance of them contracting a chronic disease is lower," he said. Private medical services were also used mainly by high-income groups, he noted.

"With regards to universal health care, we hope that more resources will be put in [to help the poor]," Leung said.

Housing, poverty and other livelihood issues will be the focus of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's policy address on January 16, according to Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong chairman Tam Yiu-chung, who discussed the issue with Leung last week.

The Commission on Poverty was revived in June last year and will soon define the city's first official poverty line.

Government data released in June shows the city's Gini coefficient - a scale from 0 to 1 on which higher scores indicate greater income inequality - reached a record high of 0.537 last year.

Overall, 17.6 per cent of people struggled with poverty in the second quarter of last year, up 0.6 percentage points from 2011, according to Oxfam Hong Kong.

In the 289 tertiary planning units drawn up by the government for town planning and statistical purposes, there is no linear relationship between the Gini coefficient and the health, happiness and harmony of people in a neighbourhood.

But Professor Leung points out that in Britain, areas with large wealth disparities also have higher mortality rates, while in the US the wealth gap can produce varying life expectancy rates in different states.

This cannot yet be seen in Hong Kong as the population is mixed and the poor have access to medical care, while the city's development is still relatively recent.

"We do not see the problems [caused by wealth disparities] - not because Hong Kong has any special defence against them, [but] because we have not see them yet," Leung said.

"We hope that we can increase social care as a whole, including investment in health and education."

He said if the government waited until problems appeared before it started tackling them, that would be too late.

Leung speaks with considerable experience of policymaking, having served for four years as undersecretary for health when Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was chief executive.

The Office of the Chief Executive declined to say how significant a part of the policy address tackling poverty in Hong Kong will be.