Health of Hong Kong’s poor is in the hands of the whole of society, not just the healthcare sector
- Marked health inequalities exist in wealthy Hong Kong, and government intervention alone is not enough to address them
- Civil society and businesses play a major role in the improvement of living and working conditions, thereby minimising illness and injury
Many tend to think that health is about individual behaviour. But, very often, health choices are not free choices. It is the resources we have available, not our free will, that dictates whether we can afford healthcare for our children, the environment in which we work, the air we breathe in our neighbourhood, and the people from whom we seek health advice.
So, our health is not only defined by things like seeing doctors, taking medicine or walking 8,000 steps a day. Unfortunately, there is always a tendency to assume that society can rely on medical solutions to cure social problems. At the end of the day, it does not matter how great our healthcare system is if we keep sending people back into the conditions that made them sick in the first place.
Besides, some big employers have started to improve employees’ health by providing exercise facilities, healthy meals, or counselling services to improve mental health.
The WHO has found that working 55 hours or more every week is an occupational risk factor linked with a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases. The UK has just embarked on the world’s biggest trial of a four-day working week, with 70 companies taking part.
Overall, there is plenty of scope to be creative, but the essence is to ensure that health and personal empowerment becomes the ethos of business.
Companies could also pay more attention to the health effects of their goods and services on end users and the wider community. For example, the unaffordability of some healthy food and the limited choices available can be a major obstacle to a healthy diet.
Businesses will be more productive with a physically and mentally healthy workforce. They will also be recognised as responsible actors in improving people’s quality of life and the environment, and become forces for good in society, thereby attracting and retaining talented people who care about more than just a pay cheque.
Action on the social determinants of health require across-the-board efforts by the government, civil society and businesses, not just the healthcare sector. Evidence shows we can reverse the systemic differences in health across society with appropriate policies and actions. But, we have to want to make a difference.
Eric T.C. Lai is research assistant professor at the Institute of Health Equity, Chinese University of Hong Kong