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.

Freeman did concede 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.

The tag was initially given to the UK as a whole in the 1970s under the administrations of Ted Heath and Harold Wilson.

But the moniker later became associated with Scotland due to higher mortality rates and lower life expectancy than its European neighbours.

In response to a question from Tory MSP Brian Whittle on Scotland's "sick man" status during an evidence session of the Health and Sport Committee, 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."

Freeman also recognised that 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. 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."

Burns, Scotland's Chief Medical Officer, has dedicated much of his life to improving health outcomes.

Freeman continued: "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."

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."