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Sick man of Europe tag ‘unwarranted’, says health secretary

Jeane Freeman said Scotland has made strides in public health and the label was unfair.

Unfair: Health secretary Jeane Freeman
Unfair: Health secretary Jeane Freeman

Health secretary Jeane Freeman has said Scotland’s label of the sick man of Europe” has become “unwarranted”.

She dismissed the tag, saying the country has made strides to improve public health.

Ms Freeman conceded more had to be done to improve health in the most deprived areas, but said the burden should not fall solely on the health service.

Scotland earned the label due to higher mortality rates and lower life expectancy than its European neighbours.

In response to a question from Tory MSP Brian Whittle in an evidence session of the Health and Sport Committee, Ms Freeman said: “I think that’s increasingly unfair actually, if you look at the statistics.

“That came from the instances of heart disease, cancer and stroke, and the mortality of those.

“While we’re nowhere near where we want to be on that, I think we’ve seen significant improvements. I think the tag is unwarranted.”

Despite arguing Scotland does not deserve the term, Ms Freeman conceded more had to be done on health inequality.

She said: “That doesn’t deny in my mind the problems that we have around health inequalities, which is significant.”

The minister: “This is not exclusively the role of the health service.

“I’m sure we’re all familiar with the work of Sir Harry Burns in identifying the key factors in health inequalities.”

Sir Harry Burns former Chief Medical officer STV

Sir Harry Burns, Scotland’s former chief medical officer, dedicated much of his life to improving health outcomes.

Ms Freeman said: “The health service has a part to play in this but so does income, job opportunities, housing and so on.

“This needs to be an approach that is picked up by colleagues in other portfolios and other areas of public service.”

Mr Whittle urged the cabinet secretary not to “underestimate the challenges” faced by the health service.

He said: “I agree with you that it’s not a title we want to hold but we have a major issue with drugs, we have a problem with type 2 diabetes, we have problems with mental health, so I think it’s important not to underestimate the challenges.”


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