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Health in 2040: An ageing population, health inequalities, and more chronic illnesses means a fresh approach to healthcare is needed

An opinion article from Dr Simon Erridge, Research Director Curaleaf Clinic

New research from The Health Foundation indicates that around 1 in 5 adults in England are expected to live with a major illness by 2040. This equates to nine million people, an increase of 2.5 million compared with 2019. The main cause of this rise can be attributed to an ageing population with most of the increase in people aged 70 years or older. Health inequalities mean that people living in the most deprived areas of the country are more likely to be affected by major illness, with conditions such as chronic pain, type 2 diabetes, anxiety and depression rising quickest among this group, particularly among working-age individuals. These trends not only mean that more people will be faced with a poorer quality of life, but are poised to further strain an already burdened healthcare system, leaving many people struggling to access care that truly works for them.

This study is a call to policymakers, healthcare professionals and stakeholders to take proactive measures now to alleviate the impending healthcare crisis. The most important of these are policy measures to address risk factors for major illnesses and wider determinants of health. Whilst important, policies aimed at prevention will require time to take effect. In the meantime investment is needed to ensure that the healthcare system can address current patient needs, particularly in conditions such as chronic pain, anxiety, and depression, which are on the rise. This involves development and research into medications and other therapies for those who need them. Through my work at Curaleaf International this involves investment of time, energy, and funds into researching the effects of medical cannabis in chronic conditions, whilst advocating for improved access for current patients.

Looking to the Future

One of the biggest hurdles we face as an industry is development of research of sufficient quality to drive changes in policy and public attitudes towards medical cannabis. To help address this Curaleaf has invested millions in global research initiatives through strategic partnerships with leading academic institutions to drive product evolution and offer a wider range of options to enable more personalised care for patients and consumers.

This research reaches truly from laboratory bench to patient bedside, from assessing how cannabinoids and terpenes affect pain signals in nerve cells grown in petri-dishes to helping to develop the UK Medical Cannabis Registry with Curaleaf Clinic – recording the effects of medical cannabis in more than 20,000 individuals. Future projects aim to close the gap further still between the evidence regulators and healthcare bodies need to decide whether medical cannabis can be more widely prescribed and what is presently available by adopting traditional and novel approaches to drug development.

Tackling Current Attitudes

At present, we know that key conditions highlighted by The Health Foundation, such as chronic pain, anxiety, and depression continue to be unmet by current provisions. The challenges are multifactorial and condition specific, but include a lack of access to physical and psychological therapies or highly variable responses to available medications.

Medical cannabis is not a panacea, but for patients that have tried licensed treatments and not improved sufficiently, it is now an option available to them in countries such as the UK, Germany, and Poland. In fact, from 2022 to 2023 we have seen a 53% increase in the number of patients in the UK alone with chronic health conditions, turning to Curaleaf Clinic for help in managing their symptoms where traditional avenues haven’t worked.

Despite the growing numbers of patients there is a lack of awareness about the safety, accessibility and efficacy of medical cannabis, both within the medical community and among patients. Our research highlights this issue, with 1 in 2 UK adults being unaware that medical cannabis can be legally prescribed in the UK. Even, among the 1.8 million estimated patients who use illicit cannabis to self-treat their health a quarter (24%) of them are unaware that cannabis can be legally prescribed, while two-fifths (41%) feel that accessing it is too difficult. Awareness takes multiple forms and Curaleaf is equally invested in improving this among the public via traditional and social media, whilst also working with people working with healthcare workers, police and other professionals to provide education rooted in fact, not stigma.

A brighter future

As we confront the healthcare challenges posed by an ageing population and health inequalities, proactive measures must be taken now to ensure a sustainable healthcare system for the future. The most important steps need to be taken by brave politicians to focus efforts on prevention of major illnesses and addressing health inequalities. Meanwhile, through addressing gaps in advocacy and research on medical cannabis we can help address unmet needs for current and future patients.

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