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Archive for the ‘Academic’ Category

By Dr Frank Atherton, Chief Medical Officer, Wales

(This article is based on a presentation to the Faculty of Public Health Conference in Telford on 20 June 2017 – view slides from the presentation)

Public health should be proud of the fact that we are an evidence-based profession. We have brought both the ethos and the tools of evidence-based clinical practice to the NHS and the wider public sector. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that public health is both a science and an art; this requires us to bring judgment to bear alongside evidence.

There are plenty of reasons that can be deployed in order not to use evidence. Sometimes issues can be seen as “blindingly obvious”; I recently saw a video of Brian Cox using the fact that we can actually see cosmic background radiation to energetically (and using colourful language) rebut a claim that the Big Bang is just a theory and may not have happened: “YOU CAN JUST ****** SEE IT.” As a newly qualified doctor on my first surgical firm, I worked with the team that had led the development of highly selective vagotomy as a curative treatment for peptic ulcer. In addition to the small operative mortality, many of the patients were left with long-term side effects such as malabsorption or diarrhoea. If I had dared to suggest that peptic ulcer might be a consequence of infection and amenable to curative treatment with antibiotics I would have been ridiculed, or worse. And yet this was subsequently found to be true and most patients are now successfully treated by H.pylori eradication rather than surgical intervention. The lessons I draw for my public health practice is that we should beware of our hidden prejudices and the influence of received wisdom; we should always be willing to challenge our assumptions. Other, less noble reasons for ignoring evidence include laziness, incompetence, pressure of work, and vested interests in outcomes; all issues that we should recognise and guard against as part of the ethical management of our own work.

Sometimes the evidence is rock solid but it is still not used to drive population health. The classic example must be smoking; we have known about the link between smoking and lung cancer since the work of Doll and Hill in the 1950s. But it took until 2007 for smoke-free public places to be enshrined in legislation across the UK. The 10-year anniversary of this achievement is an opportunity to recognise and celebrate its impact but also to raise the important question about where accountability lies for the thousands of avoidable deaths that have resulted from the decades-long delay in effective action. The answer seems to be “nowhere”. It seems to me that there is a failure in public sector governance if there is no accountability for inaction in the face of convincing evidence. The horrific events at Grenfell Tower perhaps serve as a more recent example.

And, of course, the evidence base is never complete, and we are often faced with contradictory evidence that steers us towards different courses of action. The recent debate about regulation of electronic cigarettes is a useful example. Evidence of the benefits as a smoking cessation aid have to be balanced by currently unquantifiable risks including the direct and indirect effects of vaping, and the potential for a new generation of young people to become addicted to nicotine. When faced with these sorts of uncertainty we have several options. We can commission further research, but that takes time. We can use a trial and error approach, but that brings risk (think of the death and illness last year of fit young volunteers in pharmaceutical trials in France). We can use a risk management and mitigation approach – something we all do unthinkingly in our daily lives when we buckle our seatbelts. And we can use a precautionary approach but, if used inappropriately, this might stifle innovation and change that could have a positive impact on population health.

Our approach in Wales has been to follow the thread of evidence-based public health action, from our research and development commitments (£43m per year), through the programme of action for our government, the legislative framework of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act which requires public bodies to plan and report on population health outcomes, then through to our recently passed Public Health Act which has incorporated health impact assessment into our policy and planning. In Wales, we believe that evidence matters, but judgment and compassion also need to factor into our decision-making.

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By Dr Jennifer Mindell, Reader in Public Health, Research Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London

The government is proposing to ban the sale of diesel and petrol vehicles from 2040, to address air pollution in the UK that regularly breaches health-based EU regulations.

There are three main ways to improve UK air quality: reducing emissions from vehicles; driving less; and dealing with other sources of air pollution. The government’s preferred approach seems to be ‘business as usual, but less pollution from existing travel patterns’. Yet, even with this route, they are not committing to a scrappage scheme for diesel. This would produce air-quality benefits in the short-term, instead of in the 2040s – or even the 2050s and 2060s, as some individuals and businesses keep their vehicles for a long time. A scrappage scheme needs to be available to all individuals and businesses, regardless of size, and needs to encompass vehicles of all ages. Although older vehicles are known to be very polluting, no-one really knows about new vehicles! This could be complemented by financial help for retrofitting, particularly for older buses and lorries, if replacement isn’t an option.

Drivers of diesel cars are understandably aggrieved. They were urged to buy diesel engines by previous governments and given financial incentives to do so, because of the lower CO2 emissions per km. The higher emissions of other pollutants were ignored. Those with newer vehicles have no idea what their car really emits, due to the scandalous behaviour of manufacturers. This is yet another parallel with the tobacco industry (1) which designed cigarettes to produce low tar and nicotine in the laboratory but not when used by actual smokers.

Chargeable clean-air zones (low or ultra-low emission zones) are, according to a technical report issued by the government earlier this year, the most effective mechanism, but we understand that the government’s strategy will restrict charging to the last, not the first, resort. This is one of the areas, along with improved infrastructure for transport options other than private car use, that local authorities can contribute to greatly, but they need adequate powers and adequate resources. As air pollution costs the country £20 billion annually (2), the proposed figure of £255million to local authorities is a drop in the ocean.

The government is apparently also going to urge local authorities to speed traffic flows, by amending traffic-light settings and removing speed humps. What is actually needed is more calming, not less, to support smoother driving. It is not speed humps but the marked acceleration and braking that many drivers do that increases pollution. Greater use and enforcement of, and adherence to, area-wide 20mph limits without traffic calming would be better still.

Lower speeds, which would also support more and more pleasant walking and cycling, bring me to the better approach. Instead of persuading (in the next two decades) or requiring (from 2040) people to replace their existing car with an electric car, the health gains would be far greater if people travelled by public transport, walked or cycled whenever possible. As well as reducing pollution and carbon emissions, this generally increases physical activity and can improve wellbeing and reduce obesity and its consequences.

Reductions in pollutant emissions can also be achieved by reducing the need to travel. If people who could do so worked at home once a week, that would reduce their commuting by 20%. Land-use planning that encourages mixed use can shorten journeys sufficiently to make non-car options more feasible, although this will take longer. But as the government proposal for banning sales of diesel and petrol cars is to start in 2040, they are talking longer term anyway.

The government also needs to acknowledge that, although mobile sources are the largest category of pollutants, they are not the only ones. Two major contributors are buildings, including both homes and businesses, and transboundary industrial pollution from mainland Europe. Ministerial engagement with European countries will be necessary to deal with the latter. Local authorities need to be given the powers to address the former.
Air pollution is a major contributor to health inequalities. Poorer people are more likely to be exposed to higher pollutant levels. They are also more susceptible to the harmful effects of pollutants as they are more likely to have circulatory diseases (particularly heart disease and strokes) and respiratory diseases, such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema (now called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or asthma. Improving air quality is an important factor in reducing health inequalities.

The other option that we trust the government won’t take is to move the goal posts when (or if?) the UK is no longer bound by EU legislation. That would really be a cynical approach to the population’s health.

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1. Mindell J. Lessons from tobacco control for advocates of healthy transport. J Public Health Med. 2001; 23:91-7.

2. Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution. London: RCP, 2016.

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By Hannah Dorling, Helen Walters and Tara Lamont

How can alcohol licensing decisions impact upon alcohol-related crime and health issues? Does turning street lights out at midnight cause more accidents? How does a new bus service impact upon physical activity levels?

Front-line public health professionals need relevant evidence in formats that reach them and are digestible by them and those they work with. At this year’s FPH conference we are running a session on just this issue. The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) spends £10m a year on its Public Health Research (PHR) programme and we are one of the main funders of public health research in the UK. We support research which may not be funded by others – from studies of impact of alcohol licensing to evaluation of urban motorways. NIHR also runs the Dissemination Centre whose specific role is to get research findings to the front line.

We want to fund research that evaluates public health interventions that happen outside the NHS – that will provide new knowledge on the benefits, costs, acceptability and wider impacts of interventions that impact on the health of the public and inequalities in health. We want this research to be multi-disciplinary and broad, covering a wide range of public health interventions. Funding comes from the Department of Health in all four UK countries. A key aim of the programme is to deliver information to allow practitioners and policy makers to improve services, rather than simply improving scientific knowledge. A challenge for the programme is finding the questions that most urgently need answering.

We also need to help decision-makers get hold of the evidence they need. Every day, about 75 new clinical trials and 11 new systematic reviews are published, many of which will be relevant to public health. The NIHR Dissemination Centre filters new knowledge and produces a wide range of publications. We want to know more about what kinds of evidence and formats work best for front line staff.

This is where we need you. This interactive conference session is aimed at front-line public health professionals (though academics are welcome!) who want to talk about how you use research in your daily work. Where do you find your research? What do you do with it? What would you like more of? Do you have challenges linking to the academic world? What questions would you like answered to help you in your work? Come along to our session and tell us what you think. We are keen to hear and to use your wisdom as we reflect on 10 years of public health research funding and make plans for the next 10 years.

In the meantime if you have an idea for research that needs doing please do contact us on phr@nihr.ac.uk or use the programme’s online mechanism for submitting suggestions.

Join the session at the FPH conference on Tuesday 20 June in Telford:
11:30 – 12:30: Public health need – filling the evidence gaps in local government
Location: Wenlock Suite 1&2
Presenters: Helen Walters, Consultant in Public Health Medicine / Consultant Advisor, NIHR NETSCC, University of Southampton
Tara Lamont, Deputy Director of the NIHR Dissemination Centre
Closing comments: John Middleton, President of the Faculty of Public Health

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By Melisa Campbell MFPH, Research Fellow in Public Health, (Out of Programme: SpR Public Health [St4]), Department of Public Health and Policy, University of Liverpool

Melisa Campbell

Telling the story of child inequalities in health and care using big data research has been my passion for the last six months of my Health Education England Academic Fellowship, a focus fuelled by my personal working experiences within public health departments and healthcare systems.

As many of us will be welcoming spring and making plans for the summer, I am at the ‘show how’ phase and planning for my pending PhD application, which builds firmly upon my out of programme academic experience at the Farr Institute and the Department of Public Health and Policy at the University of Liverpool.

During my fellowship so far, I have been fortunate enough to share my work at the recent Lancet Public Health Conference (2016) Swansea and the Society for Social Medicine (SSM) Conference 2016.  I am also currently drafting further papers with colleagues from University of Liverpool, University of Nottingham and University College London.

The first months of the fellowship were quickly consumed by intense technical training, making connections within and outside the university and refining my understanding of theories and methodologies necessary to deliver my proposal, particularly with relation to health inequalities and statistical methods.

On-going learning has appropriately defined my fellowship and considerably expanded my skills, knowledge and practice of research methods including statistical methods for regression analysis, dealing with missing data and longitudinal data. I’ve been learning to undertake these analyses in STATA, and also in R, which is an open source statistical platform that anyone can use for free, and so gaining transferable skills for public health service practice.

Much of my work has been exploring childhood social inequalities using the Millennium Cohort Study data – a nationally representative birth cohort of 19,000 children born at the turn of this century. Within this, I have maintained a special interest in childhood unintentional injuries, but my professional growth from this experience has facilitated a greater breadth of topics relating to child inequalities pertaining to paediatric hospital admissions, smoking initiation and school bullying, drawing on the expertise in the Farr Institute.

This has already been a rewarding experience and I look forward to making the most of my remaining time. My contact details, previous and when ready information on my current and future work can be found at: University of Liverpool: Melisa Campbell

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By Margaret Whitehead

David Player led the Health Education Council in the 1980s. On April 2 he celebrated his 90th birthday in Edinburgh

I first met David Player in the mid-1970s, when I took up my first public health research job in the Scottish Health Education Unit (SHEU) in Edinburgh, where David was Director. At the time, David had this great idea: to pump-prime academic health promotion by funding academic lectureships in the various relevant disciplines in Scottish universities. As this was a novel strategy at the time, a range of committees had to be convinced, and David taught me how to put a compelling case with different messages for different interest groups. He triumphed in the end, and the fruits of his far-sighted vision can still be seen today, not least in the leaders of public health research that his initiative produced.

One of the first lessons that working under David’s directorship taught me was that everything about public health is political – even the seemingly most innocuous subjects could catch you out. One of my very first tasks was to produce a factual guide to family-planning services in Scotland, which I never dreamt anyone could object to. I was wrong. Somehow it came to the attention of the Scottish health minister with a strongly Catholic constituency in Glasgow, and, before I knew it, objections were being raised and outrage was being expressed. This was the sort of challenge that David cheerfully faced every day – be it about sugar, alcohol or tobacco – as he waged war with what he termed “the anti-health forces”.

It was David’s longstanding passion about unemployment and health and inequalities, however, that shone through for me. David moved from SHEU in the 1980s to take up the post of Director General of the then Health Education Council (HEC). By then I was a freelance researcher and in January 1986, David commissioned me to update the evidence that had accumulated since the publication of the Black Report in 1980 and assess the progress made on the report’s 37 recommendations. My report, entitled The Health Divide, was eventually published in March 1987 as an HEC occasional report, one week before the HEC was disbanded. David did two politically astute things when he commissioned the report: he set up an informal panel of distinguished scientific advisors, including three of the original members of the Black Report working group, and he signed over copyright of The Health Divide to me (as opposed to the commissioning body, HEC), thereby ensuring that the report would be published irrespective of what happened to the HEC.

As the launch date drew nearer, Peter Townsend, a scientific advisor for the report and one of the authors of the original Black Report, suggested that the HEC needed to call a press briefing, backed up by the scientific advisors because, in Peter’s memorable words:

“We can’t let Margaret face the flak alone.”

At the time I was young and so naïve that I hadn’t realised that there would be any flak!  How wrong I was again. After we had all travelled to London on the appointed day, the Chairman of the HEC decided to cancel the press briefing at the HEC offices an hour before it was due to begin. He was quoted in the Independent as saying that The Health Divide was “political dynamite in an election year” and so it was necessary to postpone the press briefing.  Members of the panel, who had already assembled, decided to proceed with the press briefing at the nearby offices of the Disability Alliance – David and his staff were instructed not to attend and so had to watch from the sidelines as the story unfolded. And what a story it turned out to be. As we made our way towards the Disability Alliance in Soho, journalists who were hurrying towards the HEC came across the procession going the other way and joined in behind – a Pied Piper effect. The press, TV and radio swung into action, spurred on by the hint that the report had been suppressed, possibly by the intervention of the department or even government ministers. The fact that this was remarkably similar to the treatment that the Black Report received seven years earlier was not lost on the media. The result was a public relations triumph for health inequalities advocacy (or a public relations disaster for the Chair of the HEC and government).

A health journalist, Peter Davies, recalled how a few days after the event, David Player told him gleefully: “It is going like hot cakes. They were queuing outside in New Oxford Street. We have a bestseller on our hands.” (1).

We had indeed – publishers started queuing up to publish The Health Divide, and it was eventually published in one volume with The Black Report by Penguin and became a non-fiction bestseller (2)

In the hectic aftermath of the press conference, the House of Lords requested copies for all the members as they prepared to debate the NHS, and a re-print had to be hastily prepared. It was, however, when a request for a copy of The Health Divide from Margaret Thatcher’s office landed on David’s desk that things became scary. David told a witness seminar at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that, as he signed the complements slip to the PM, “It felt like I was signing my own death warrant.” (3).

The Times fanned that particular flame, by suggesting that the report was a “devastating final salvo from David Player to the government” on the eve of the disbandment of the HEC. That did David a great injustice – at the time he commissioned The Health Divide, over a year earlier, there was no inkling that the HEC would be disbanded, or that the Government would call a snap election, timed not long after the eventual publication.
It meant, however, that David did lose his job with the closure of the HEC and a very difficult time ensued for him. When I think of David during this episode and the battles he fought before and after it, I think of his courage in the true spirt of the great public health pioneers, mixed with his great Glaswegian sense of humour. An unstoppable combination!

1.    Davies P.  Review. BMJ 2003; 326: 169.
2.    Inequalities in Health: the Black Report edited by Peter Townsend and Nick Davidson and The Health Divide by Margaret Whitehead. 2nd Edition. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1992.
3.    Berridge V, Blume S. (eds) Poor health: social inequality before and after the Black Report. Report of a Witness Seminar.   London: Frank Cass &Co Ltd. 2003.

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By Daniel Flecknoe, Co-Chair of the FPH Global Violence Prevention Special Interest Group

The preliminary report of the Lancet/American University of Beirut Commission Health workers and the weaponisation of health care in Syria [Fouad et al, 2017] was published on 14 March, calling attention to the principles of medical neutrality and unhindered patient access that have been so badly neglected in the ongoing Syrian conflict. Systematic targeting of health workers by ISIS, Syrian and Russian military forces is a war crime committed against civil society, and epitomises a disturbing trend of indifference and impunity to international humanitarian law by warring governments and armed groups over recent years. Established norms in the conduct of war, built up over the past century and a half since the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross, may be irrevocably degrading, and the public health consequences for civilian populations exposed to such deliberate brutality will be correspondingly more severe.

The Faculty of Public Health’s (FPH’s) Global Violence Prevention Special Interest Group (SIG) is committed to engaging with this neglected and worsening cause of preventable morbidity and early mortality. Its members contribute to research into the health impacts of armed conflict (including the Lancet paper referenced), engage and collaborate with other conflict-prevention organisations and conduct advocacy for arms control, economic/democratic reforms, and respect for human rights and the rules of war. We encourage all public health professionals to give parity to armed conflict along with other major global causes of illness, injury and death, and to lobby (both as citizens and medical professionals) for foreign policies that will protect and preserve health.

The SIG will be represented at the FPH conference in June, and members will be happy to discuss our current workstreams with anyone who might be interested in getting involved.

References:
Fouad FM, Sparrow A, Tarakji A, Alameddine M, El-Jardali F, Coutts AP, El Arnaout N, Bou Karroum L, Jawad M, Roborgh S, Abbara A, Alhalabi F, AlMasri I,  Jabbour S. 2017. Health workers and the weaponisation of health care in Syria: a preliminary inquiry for The Lancet–American University of Beirut Commission on Syria. The Lancet. Published online 14/07/17 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(17)30741-9

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By Professor Aileen Clarke, President of the Society for Social Medicine

A highlight of this year’s UK Faculty of Public Health Conference in Telford is going to be the Society for Social Medicine’s (SSM’s) ‘Research in Action’ session.

The SSM will be hosting this research feast at the always fantastic and hugely enjoyable FPH conference. Last year this session had standing-room only and this year it will be bigger and better than ever – and hopefully will have more chairs!

In our ‘Research in Action’ session, we will be presenting the top-scoring abstracts from SSM’s own annual scientific conference with a variety of public health topics. Last year they ranged from obesity, to housing and health and active commuting. This year we’re including public health advocacy, youth mentoring and immunisation uptake.

You can also expect the presentations to cover a range of research methodologies from epidemiology, cost-effectiveness modelling, systematic reviews and mixed methods to qualitative research.

SSM’s purpose is “advancing knowledge for population health” and in this case we are hoping to advance knowledge by showcasing exemplar public health research. Our session at the FPH conference is an exciting opportunity to promote linkages and future collaborations between public health researchers and practitioners.

I hope I have been able to sell our session to you. Please do come along and get involved.

Please find more information about the FPH conference at Telford on 20-21 June here.

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