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By Sarah Payne

I have the privilege to be a Health Education England (HEE) academic fellow this year, taking up my fellowship just as summer was throwing us an extra few weeks of warm weather to take forward into the Autumn. My first weeks were a blur of getting my feet under the table in my new home, the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences at Oxford University, meeting new colleagues and setting out my plan for the year ahead. I was then straight off to a week-long intensive course to learn the art of changing people’s behaviours – courtesy of Susan Michie and colleagues at the University College London Centre for Behaviour Change. And what a week it was! Not only was it a great course but it was a great way to kick off my fellowship year, providing lots of inspiration and a ‘to-do list’ as long as my arm to get stuck into when I returned to the office.

Developing a suitable research project and securing research funding for it was one of the aims of my HEE academic fellowship, so I was thrilled when I found out I had been successful in securing an award, from the British Heart Foundation, to fund my proposed research project – investigating ways to help people with high blood pressure reduce their salt intake. Cue a short but wild celebration – short because the funding was contingent on having ethics approval for all elements of the research in place before the award would be given. So, duly inspired from my behaviour change course and brimming with enthusiasm to delve into the literature to understand more about the target behaviour I hoped to change and effective behaviour-change techniques to do so, and to spend some quality time developing a behaviourally informed intervention… I was faced with ETHICS FORMS! Hmmm….not so inspiring, though of course a critical part of the process.

Thankfully, the HEE fellowship provides a perfect bridge to support the development phase of my work, allowing me to prepare detailed research protocols and all the associated documents that support an ethics application for my proposed research and to begin some of the training in research skills needed to carry out the research. As well as fulfilling the immediate requirement to secure my longer term PhD funding, the process of preparing ethics applications has forced me to consider the finer details of my research and really think through how I will deliver it. I’ve had great support from my supervisors and my department – including the opportunity to gather valuable statistics feedback from the regular department Stats Coven!

So, a slightly different focus for my first six months than I had planned, but it has so far been a fulfilling and interesting time, as well as suitably productive. I’ve attended a couple of other short courses, both of which have helped to keep my ‘inspiration and enthusiasm’ barometer high. I’ve attended various department seminars and workshops and had an opportunity to meet and network with other PhD students. Naturally, I’ve also learnt the ins and outs of the various ethics processes and undertaken some training in research integrity and good clinical practice!

So onward and upwards. I have submitted my ethics applications and I’m in the midst of the lengthy process of amendments and waiting… and waiting… Perhaps I will use some of this time to explore that behaviour change literature-base I’ve been waiting to get to. Maybe there are even the beginnings of a systematic review in sight…

Sarah Payne is a Health Education England Academic Fellow

claire-beynon-at-fph-conference-2016My name’s Claire Beynon and I’m a registrar in my third year of training.

I went to the Faculty of Public Health (FPH) conference in Brighton last year (above) and I’m going to this year’s event in Telford in June.  So I thought I’d offer some thoughts on the benefits to other registrars of coming along as well.

As a registrar working in Wales I know most of the people in my area really well, but I don’t have much of a chance to find out about what’s happening across other parts of the UK or meet other registrars.

The FPH conference brings registrars from across the UK together.  Last year I met several other registrars from opposite ends of the country and we shared stories and experiences about the different health systems we now work in.

I also bumped into a few people who I hadn’t seen in a long time, and we caught up in the relaxed breaks and mealtimes over the course of the two days.

I was lucky enough to have my abstract accepted last year and I spoke in one of the parallel sessions on childhood obesity.  I shared my work with people who, like me, are really dedicated to tackling childhood obesity.  I found it was a great platform to share work you have finished recently and get some vital feedback and new ideas from other experts in the field.

The thing I liked most about last year’s conference was the atmosphere.  As we all know, people working in public health are fabulous, so perhaps it isn’t a surprise that the conference was fun.

The FPH Specialty Registrars Committee (who represent registrars) also has a dedicated conference session at which registrars will be sharing their experiences of the National Treasure placements.

And there will be time to socialise too.  This year committee members will all be at the conference party at the end of day one.  It’s going to be a fantastic opportunity to get to know people informally who you will very likely end up working with over the rest of your career.  So come along and say hello!

You can register to come to this year’s conference here http://www.fph.org.uk/fph_annual_conference_and_public_health_expo_2017

By Dr Nadeem Hasan

The importance of effective advocacy to achieving public health goals cannot be overstated.
Every day policies and regulations that affect health outcomes for better or worse are put on the agenda and kept off the agenda; discussed and debated; approved and rejected.

Many, if not most of these relate primarily to non-health sectors, such as food and beverages, energy and infrastructure, and alcohol and tobacco. But their impact on health outcomes is very real: all the stop-smoking programmes in the world can’t match the impact of the ban on advertising and smoking in public places on smoking prevalence; and there’s no amount of spending on childhood obesity programmes that can make up for the regulatory vacuum in this area.

Looking more broadly, policy decisions that affect income inequality, carbon emissions, and military action all have serious consequences for health across the world.

If we’re serious about prevention, we need to be serious about advocacy.
Where profits can be affected (almost everywhere), industry lobbyists seek to influence the regulatory environment in their favour. And they are very good at it. In principle, this is quite right – those affected by policy and regulatory shifts should indeed be able to make representations and provide additional evidence to support the decision-making process – and this includes relevant industry actors.
Representing the interests of everybody else is where advocacy organisations come in – acting as sort of ‘civil society lobbyists’ to balance out the discussion – advocating on behalf of the health, wellbeing, and broader concerns of the general population. Notably, this isn’t always an ‘us vs. them’ relationship: health insurance companies are routinely allies on advocating for lower drug prices; and renewable energy companies are more than happy to work with advocacy organisations on climate change regulation.

Put this way, it might sound like a fair playing field, with decision-makers receiving submissions from a range of groups and making balanced decisions to maximise the benefits to all parties. The reality of course is quite different, and much, much messier.
In 2014, there were an estimated 30,000 industry lobbyists in Brussels alone, falling just short of the 31,000 employees for the whole European Commission.

Civil society pockets are not deep enough to come close to matching this (or the salaries of lobbyists), and civil society advocacy and pressure groups are few and far between. Transparency falls short of the ideal, and the revolving door between policy-making and industry remains alive and well. Most recently the former President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso was appointed Chairman of Goldman Sachs International, a move that has been widely criticised.
Advocacy organisations, then, have a difficult task – but one where even small successes can have far-reaching benefits for public health.
The European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), based in Brussels, is one such advocacy organisation. They bring together a range of health-related NGOs to advocate for better public health in Europe, working across five campaign areas: antimicrobial resistance; food, drink and agriculture; healthy economic policy; universal access and affordable medicines; and trade for health (and specifically the EU-US free trade agreement – TTIP – and the EU-Canada free trade agreement – CETA). Earlier this year, they hosted myself and another registrar in a pilot placement to understand health advocacy at the European level and to develop skills in this area.
So how to sum up the placement?
Invaluable. EPHA track the policy process for each one of their campaign areas and engage at every possible point. They attend every meeting at the European Parliament and the European Commission on these areas and make oral contributions at every opportunity; they submit comprehensive written responses to every relevant consultation; they engage on a daily basis with journalists to publicise their positions and build public support; they engage like-minded actors in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors on a case-by-case basis to coordinate action; and they do all of this with just a handful of relatively young staff and interns.

They were very welcoming in bringing us into the whole process, allowing me to engage in every one of these steps – from writing position papers and consultation responses to making oral contributions at the European Commission and Parliament on their behalf.
Notably, EPHA also position themselves as an advocacy agency that actors from across the spectrum can engage with – in contrast to, for example, much more vocal organisations such as Greenpeace.

By way of example, the area that I was working on was TTIP. Whilst there are a raft of advocacy organisations across Europe (and the USA) that reject TTIP outright, EPHA’s

approach is to work through the whole agreement and advocate for the protection of public health on a section-by-section basis without rejecting the whole deal. With the European Commission politically committed to getting a deal, this makes EPHA one of the few organisations they can meaningfully engage with on this issue (though recent developments have called into question the likelihood of getting a deal in the near future).

This isn’t to say that their approach is ‘superior’ – every actor plays a particular role, with the more intransigent organisations key in shifting public opinion and providing the space for actors such as EPHA to engage in more balanced discussions. This means that they are invited to closed-door sessions with only a handful of actors, and have much more influence on the process than they otherwise would.
One of the challenges from a ‘public health professional’ perspective was that effective advocacy sometimes involves taking – shall we say – a less balanced view than we would normally as technical experts. From an ethical perspective, this raises a number of questions around whether the ends justify the means. I witnessed first-hand industry lobbyists making quite outrageous claims, including a rather undignified moment where I coughed up half my glass of water in a large auditorium at the European Commission when it was submitted that ‘alcohol is in no way an unhealthy commodity’ .

In a world where climate change denial is alive and well despite the most overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the ‘best’ approach to making our points is perhaps not so easy to discern.
And what of the relevance to the UK, particularly as we now start closing our doors to the EU in a bid to be a more open, global-facing country?
Whether or not the UK is a member, the EU remains a powerful actor that can influence policies related to public health both for its own citizens (which will still number ~450m after the UK leaves), and globally. As a close neighbour, EU regulations will have a strong bearing on public health in the UK too, and so engaging in advocacy at this level will continue to be an effective approach to improving UK public health.

This is true for everything from environmental regulations and air pollution, to pharmaceutical regulations and drug pricing and safety.
Within the UK, whilst it’s true that our policy-making process is not as amenable to advocacy as at the EU level (or remotely as civilised), effective advocacy still has huge potential to improve public health. We have not done well recently, with a watered-down childhood obesity strategy, no resistance to an unfunded ‘7-day’ NHS (that differs from the 7-day NHS that has existed since 1948 in some undefined way), and year-on-year increases in the use of food banks without any policy response (to name just three areas).

At the local level, there are a cornucopia of opportunities for advocacy to improve health, from influencing urban planning (fast food outlets close to schools, street design, cycling lanes) to advocacy around shifting public perceptions e.g. from opposing to welcoming refugees into local communities.
In this context, strengthening the advocacy skills of the UK public health workforce through engaging with and learning from experienced actors such as EPHA should be pursued with vigour – we can ill afford the alternative.

Dr Nadeem Hasan is a Specialty Registrar in Public Health

 

By Nadeem Hasan

I’m five months into a year-long stint in Sierra Leone as one of the global health fellows for 2016/17. I hope to blog about the positives of the experience, hence the format ‘in praise of’.

After all, there’s enough negativity around as it is.

I’ll be working in the Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MoHS) in Freetown, supporting their mission to strengthen the health system following Ebola, and learning as much as I can along the way.

Predictably, I’ve already learned a lot more than I’ve contributed.

I’m engaging with the financial and capacity challenges in the MoHS; the political challenges; and the complexity of operating alongside the World Health Organisation, the World Bank, UN agencies, and hundreds of NGOs and private sector implementing partners. And all of that before even getting to the content of the day-to-day work of the ministry.

Accordingly, I don’t feel too bad about the learning overshadowing my own contributions.

Not being sure what to expect when I got to my office, what first struck me was the sheer number of international staff embedded in the MoHS. I found technical experts from the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), Oxford Policy Management (OPM), Overseas Development Institute (ODI), USAID and others – all with desks inside the ministry, working hand-in-hand with national staff.

Foreigners everywhere. And now here I was adding to their number.

The ability of the ministry to pursue its goals should be improved by international experts working together with their national counterparts: on the face of it, it’s a win-win situation. However, the sheer number of international staff also leads to challenges for sustainability and country ownership of health policies and programmes – and if not managed carefully could have a negative impact in the long-term.

So what’s the appropriate balance?

Three months in, it’s clear that these long-term embedded experts have had the time to build strong relationships with their national counterparts. Through these relationships, they’ve been able to develop a deep understanding of the local context – including the enablers and barriers to successful design and implementation of policies and programmes.

Crucially, a lot of this information isn’t written down anywhere (for very good reasons), and can only be gathered through living in the country.

As a result, these individuals end up being highly skilled in their ability to compare and contrast what the evidence and data says should be done to improve health outcomes, with what can actually be achieved on the ground at any given time. Importantly, this requires taking into account the personal relationships that exist between key individuals.

Compared with short-term consultants that ‘parachute in and helicopter out’, they’re highly valued by senior national staff in the MoHS for their expertise and sensitivity to the local context. And, I think, rightly so.

All of this is fine of course, but what about the questions of country ownership (what happens after external ‘experts’ have done their bit) and sustainability (what happens when they leave)?

Well, I’ve watched how some of the more seasoned experts resist the temptation to look at the evidence and data and write the ‘ideal’ policy or strategy, presented with a shiny bow, only for it to sit gathering dust on a shelf.

Instead, they work on the sidelines; gathering the relevant data on a topic and developing the questions for discussion by national actors. They support the process of convening national actors to discuss the best way forwards without taking too active a role in those discussions themselves. They therefore support leadership by national staff, which in turn generates the momentum and wider ownership required for success.

The ‘capacity building’ aspect is harder to see at the central level than in a health facility, where the traditional ‘teaching and mentoring’ approach is more appropriate.

At the MoHS, knowledge and skills are shared (both ways) through building trusting relationships with national staff and working together on routine aspects of the job. The mutual respect that this generates in turn increases the rate of knowledge and skills transfer.

Accordingly, the longer the expert is embedded in the team, the more effective the process. In this way, the sustainability of the work done and approaches taken by international staff is to some extent ensured.

A major challenge comes in the form of convincing donors focused on results that this long-term, ‘softly, softly’ approach with no concrete ‘measurable’ outputs is worth the investment – but that’s a whole other issue.

This is of course a rose-tinted view, but the blog is, after all, entitled ‘in praise of’.

Thinking back to practice in the UK, I wonder whether there is a broader relevance of this approach for ‘health in all policies’. Embedding public health specialists in non-health teams on a long-term basis can have two major benefits. First, the use of a robust evidence and data-led approach to policy making that considers the health impacts of non-health policies. Second, the contextual understanding of how to do achieve this effectively under the leadership of the host team (thereby ensuring sustainability).

Comparing Sierra Leone to, for example, the Department for Education in Whitehall might seem odd at first glance. However, for a public health specialist they’re both new contexts that have to be learned and understood before being able to operate and influence effectively, and both places where our skillset and approach could lead to significant improvements in health outcomes.

I know this is already happening in some places such as Transport for London. If it is anywhere near as effective as it is in Sierra Leone, then we could do with a lot more of it.

Nadeem Hasan is a public health registrar

By Professor John Ashton

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The statue near the site of the Christmas truce football match.

Granny Ashton’s half brother, my great uncle Arthur Anderton, died on the Somme in 1918.

According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, ‘Private Arthur John Anderton 283444, serving with the 2nd/ 4th Battalion, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers), died on 25 April. Sadly he has no known grave and therefore he is commemorated by name … on Panel 86 on the Pozieres Memorial, France. Pozieres is a village about 6 kilometres north-east of Albert.’

Great uncle Arthur was from Liverpool but unlike many of his fellow Liverpudlian victims of the First World War his name does not appear with the thousands of others on the walls of the memorial room in Liverpool Town Hall. Rather, at the time of his death resisting the last German attempted push to Paris in the dying months of the war, he found himself in a London regiment.

Reading the daily log of his commanding officer, as we retraced his final weeks’ footsteps some years ago, the reason becomes clear. A typical morning entry would record that two or three hundred men had joined the regiment and an evening entry would record that at least a similar number were missing presumed dead, with no body to be found.

The result was a constant forming and reforming of battalions.

Spending several days immersed in the tragedy of such inhumanity, I was struck by the relatively small size of the battle area of the river Somme; space which saw so much death and maiming.

I was also reminded that this tragedy affected so many nations and people. Arriving at the cemetery at Poitiers we were surprised by the arrival of two young Germans on a motorbike whose relative was remembered in a British cemetery. Tears were never far from my eyes.

That trip made a lasting impression on me and the fragility of the peace of 1918 and that of 1945 has become ever more apparent as our 21st century world fragments, instability and ancient hatreds return and battle lines are drawn up. On average, in recent years around 200,000 people have been killed in conflict each year.

In the First World War 90% of those killed were soldiers and 10% civilians. Today that ratio is nearer 25%:75%. Never has it been more important to learn the lessons of history.

So this year when political biographer Sir Anthony Seldon decided to do something about establishing the Western Front as a cultural reference point for peacemaking, I was up for the challenge.

While writing a book about the First World War, Sir Anthony came across the story of Douglas Gillespie who was killed in the Battle of Loos in September 1915. Shortly before his death, Douglas had suggested in a letter home the creation of a ‘Via Sacra’ when the war was over. He wanted it to run from Switzerland to the English Channel, a secular pilgrim route to help future generations understand the need for peace.

And so, on 22 June this year, a varied group of us met on the steps of the Mairie in Pfetterhouse, close by the Swiss-German-French border, and set off to walk north to the Channel. It was a remarkable experience. It was bitter-sweet; poignant and sad; a significant challenge; great fun; and a unique opportunity to share in an adventure with some remarkable people.

In some ways it felt like a contemporary re-run of Chaucer’s Pilgrims Tales; everyone had stories to tell, including Gillespie’s descendants and others who had lost family or had family members taken prisoner of war.

But it was also a three dimensional education.

On the second day we got lost in the Vosges mountains in temperatures well into the 30s and discovered the price the French paid to hold the Germans in the south, dug in for the freezing winter of 1914 at 3000 feet.

On the last day of June we reached the Somme itself, ready for the centenary ceremonies near Albert the next day and I felt the spirit of Great Uncle Arthur once again. We moved on to Vimy, Armentieres, Ypres and Passchendale; past the spot where a British soldier spared Adolf Hitler’s life and where Winston Churchill served his country.

We passed by the ever so poignant field of the Christmas truce and the football match, now part of folklore (the statue commemorating the truce is in the photograph above). We walked on past the Menin Gate with English schoolchildren laying wreaths at the sound of the Last Post; and finally to the coast at Diksmuide, where a local farmer had the presence of mind to open the sluice gates, flood the marshes and cut off the German troops.

Sir Anthony’s vision is of a long distance path which will be trodden for hundreds of years to come; perhaps long after the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has ceased to exist.

It is a necklace-like path punctuated by educational oases – like the remarkable little museum created out of a German medical field station in Cernay, where we were shown such hospitality by the local mayor. A path which will engage with future generations and steer them away from the path of intolerance, hatred, war and death. A path which will mean no more great uncle Arthurs cut down in the prime of life.

It is Sir Anthony’s intention to repeat this year’s walk in 2017 and 2018. You can find details on the Via Sacra website (http://www.viasacrawalk2016.org.uk/).

John Ashton 7 November 2016

 

vitamin-d

By Dr Amrita Jesurasa

Ever since our most ancient ancestors left Africa to populate the rest of the world the appearance of their descendants has changed.

Height, facial features, hair type, body size and shape, and invisible genes that can protect from or predispose to disease have developed and differentiated racial groups. But the most profound (and superficial) change has to be in the colour of our skin as people migrated and settled around the world.

Skin colour forms a strong part of our physical and social identity, at times unifying people but more distressingly, causing division. The legacy of this evolutionary change has left its scars on human history in the last few hundred years and continues to cause tension in the present. Ethnic inequalities in health are well recognised and yet we perhaps fail to recognise the true message from history: why did skin colour change?

Current theory suggests that this phenomenon arose as a result of our need for vitamin D. As our early ancestors migrated to northern latitudes, they experienced the severe consequences of vitamin D deficiency. These included bone deformities that affected their ability to walk, breathe and – crucially – to give birth (the latter the result of changes to the female pelvis).

In Europe, natural selection began to favour lighter skin that allowed ultraviolet radiation to be more readily absorbed, vitamin D to be synthesised and ultimately our species to survive in Europe and other northern climes.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and rapid technological advances have transformed the way we live. Some of these developments, including air travel, have facilitated evolutionary shortcuts, enabling the humans of today to live in environments that are totally different to that of even the previous generation. But other advances have affected the behaviour of us all by encouraging a more indoor lifestyle than that of our ancestors, creating fear of the adverse effects of the sun and altering our dietary habits.

This perfect storm has allowed vitamin D deficiency to become a population-wide issue, but one which has the greatest impact on those with darker skin. The irony is that this disproportionate effect within the population marginalises the issue of vitamin D deficiency, creating an ethnicity-related health inequality.

To raise the profile of vitamin D deficiency, universal issues need to be addressed and universal solutions provided. While improving access to vitamin D supplements must be part of this strategy, there are worrying common pitfalls associated with an exclusively medical approach.

Instead, a simple message may resonate more with both the public and policy-makers. This could mean promoting a basic principle that “like plants, we need food, water and sunshine to thrive”. With a more holistic approach we can relate prevention of vitamin D deficiency to other important and well-recognised public health concerns, thereby raising the priority of this historically important issue.

  • Dr Jesurasa is a Specialty Registrar in Public Health Medicine/ Honorary Clinical Lecturer in Public Health, University of Sheffield
By Philip Daniels, Health Education England Global Health Fellow

Over the next year I will be working within the Public Health England Global Health Team. Based in London and Freetown, I’ll be supporting the development of the Sierra Leone National Public Health Agency, working with colleagues from Sierra Leone, USA and China.

Being awarded a Health Education England Global Health Fellowship is an enormous privilege. It gives me the chance to work with colleagues from a diverse range of backgrounds, disciplines and nationalities. I’ll be blogging regularly to help me record what I see and learn.

It is an incredibly exciting time to be involved in Global Public Health. Issues such as pandemic disease, outbreaks such as Ebola and Zika, as well as the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and climate change are increasingly informing the UK’s approach to Public Health.

The UK is a signatory of both the International Health Regulations (2005) and the Sustainable Development Goals (2015) – the latter of which include an explicit commitment to ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages.

The UK Aid strategy (2015) restructured Overseas Development Aid (ODA), on which the UK spends 0.7% of its GDP, to ensure that it is spent on tackling the great global challenges. As part of this, the UK government has established:

  • The Ross Fund, a £1 billion initiative to tackle the most dangerous infectious diseases such as Ebola, malaria, neglected tropical diseases and drug resistant infections
  • A £500 million ODA crisis reserve to enable effective cross-government responses to crises as they happen
  • A Global Challenges research fund of £1.5 billion over the next five years to ensure UK science takes a leading role in addressing the problems faced by developing countries – such as building resilience during emergencies and tackling AMR.

In addition, the government has committed to increasing UK climate finance for developing countries by at least 50%, to reduce emissions, increase access to energy, build resilience of the poorest and most vulnerable people, and to reduce deforestation.

All of this reflects an awareness that what happens internationally and globally affects health security in the UK. It’s also apparent that the expertise based in the UK has much to offer the rest of the world, as illustrated by PHE’s successful efforts to give public health and science a bigger role within the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk reduction (2015-2030).

Reflecting this, Public Health England and the Faculty of Public Health have published Global Health Strategy. It highlights not only the complexity of the problems faced, but also the enormous contribution that will be made in the coming years by UK Public Health. It is within this context that I begin my Global Health Fellowship.

It is set to be a challenging and rewarding year; I look forward to sharing it with you.