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Archive for the ‘Health Inequalities’ Category

by Paul Southon

  • Public Health Development Manager
  • UK Healthy Cities Network Local Coordinator

Welfare reform is a reality. Reviews of the likely health impacts suggest that they will be significant, are starting now and will last for a generation. (1) (2)

Work to quantify the financial implications for local areas shows that the financial impact will be disproportionately felt by the areas with the largest health inequalities. (3) There is also evidence that the impacts on already disadvantaged sections of communities – such as disabled people, black and minority ethnic groups and women – will be disproportionate. (4) (5)

All of this is happening at a time of major reductions in budgets and staffing across the public sector which limits the local ability to respond. This has been described as a perfect storm for local government. It will also have significant impacts across health services.

Over the longer term there is likely to be an increase in mental health problems, non-communicable diseases and related disabilities which will be felt across the health and social care system. Increasing poverty, especially child poverty, will have long term and generational impacts on child development, health outcomes and life expectancy.

GPs are reporting an increase in people with mental health problems. They are also reporting increasing numbers of requests for support with appeals against Work Capability Assessment decisions and the changes to disability benefits.

Currently the most visible part of the welfare reforms is the spare room subsidy or ‘bedroom tax’. Families on housing benefit who are defined as having extra bedrooms suffer a financial penalty. There is a severe shortage of available smaller properties for these families to move into. Their options are to move into the private rented sector, which may be more expensive, or stay where they are with a reduced income. Families are also moving to areas with lower rents, losing their social and support networks.

Councils are already reporting increases in rent arrears.(6)It is likely that this will lead to increased stress and family tensions, which could be exacerbated by the loss of social and support networks. A concern is that these families will resort to using alternative lenders, such as pay day loans, to cover shortfalls. One payday loan company has recently increased its typical APR to 5,835%.

For families experiencing poverty food becomes a major problem, both in access to enough food and in the quality of the food available. The rapid rise in food banks is testament to the difficulty families have in buying food. (7)

They also have to rely on the cheapest food which is often poor in nutrition and high in fats, including trans-fats. With the current food environment eating healthily is not a cheap option.

So, welfare reform is a reality. The evidence suggests that it is likely to have a major negative impact on public health and inequalities. It is now time to ask the key question: What can local areas do about it and what is the role of public health?

Much of the focus in councils has been on setting up the local systems to manage what were previously national benefit systems, the social and crisis fund payments and council tax benefits. Now these are operational the wider impacts of the reforms are being considered.

Many councils are mapping the local impact of welfare reforms to better understand the local challenges. (8) However, the scope to tackle these challenges at a local level is limited.

One of the stated aims of the welfare reforms is to encourage people into work. This is a laudable aim. Supporting someone into good quality work is a major public health win. The main way to reduce the numbers of people reliant on benefits will be to increase local employment.

However, increasing local employment is challenging in the areas where welfare reform will have the largest impact. Many of these areas have poor levels of educational attainment. Much of the available employment is low paid and insecure. A recent report estimates the local financial impact.

For example, Sandwell will lose around £119 million from the economy each year resulting in less money spent within the local economy, affecting local business and resulting in fewer local jobs.

With the limited scope for minimising the impacts of welfare reform at a local level it is essential that the most is made of local resources. This will need joined up working across councils, health, voluntary and community sectors and local businesses.

Public health has a role in raising awareness of the changes and the health impacts across all parts of the council and partners. It can also support the mapping and analysis of local impact, helping identify the local priorities for action and ensuring local plans are evidence based and monitored effectively.

Welfare reform is here, it comes with a real risk of significant negative impacts on health and inequalities at both local and national levels. Public health in councils needs to recognise this and ensure that it is fully involved in local efforts to minimise these impacts. At a regional and national level public health must lobby for changes to policy to protect population health and the disproportionate effects on the most vulnerable.

(1)Institute of Health Equity (2012). The impact of the economic downturn and policy changes on health inequalities in London.

(3) Beatty C, Fothergill S. Hitting the poorest places hardest: the local and regional impact of welfare reform. Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research. 2013

(4) Oxfam GB. (2010) A gender perspective on 21st century welfare reform.

(5) Welsh Government. (2013) Analysing the impact of the UK Government’s welfare reforms in Wales – Stage 3 analysis.

(6) Inside Housing (2013) Rent arrears up in wake of bedroom tax.

(7) Trussel Trust (2013) Increasing numbers turning to food banks since April’s welfare reforms.

(8) Sandwell Trends: Welfare Reform Topic Page (2013).

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Does Local Healthwatch offer a fresh start for democratic accountability in healthcare, or more of the same structural problems that lead to tokenism and a lack of inability to have real influence? This was the question at the heart of the debate about democratic accountability at the 2012 FPH conference. The workshop was chaired by Professor Mark Gamsu of Leeds Metropolitan University, who specialises in tackling health inequality through strong citizens, local government and the voluntary sector.

Mark talked about how government policy often focuses on the ‘manual’, or process of delivery, rather than outcomes and impact. He – partly in jest – apologised for his part in the inclusion of Joint Strategic Needs Assessments as a duty in the Health and Social Care Act, because in his view it is only a tool – and tools should not be legislated for. It might have been better to have a duty requiring local strategies and commissioning to be based on local intelligence. There is also a tendency for all new governments to assume they are starting from a ‘year zero’ positionand therefore a danger that the achievements and experience of the present and past is not recognised and built on sufficiently.

Mark looked at the challenges and opportunities offered by Local Healthwatch, which launches in April 2013 and will take on the work of the Local Involvement Networks (LINks). Healthwatch and public health are potential allies. They share some characteristics, not least because they are both comparatively small and achieve much of their impact using evidence to influence change.

This led to lively discussion of what drives commissioners, and the kind of leadership that can be expected to make the new systems work effectively once they take effect in 2013.
This will have a direct effect on what Healthwatch can realistically achieve, given that its lack of statutory powers mean it could face the same problems of tokenism and inability to effect change that have affected LINks.

There a was both positive and negative experience among delegates, who included commissioners and current LINks members, about how likely it was that Healthwatch could have the necessary influence to hold local services to account. As one LINks member put it, very few people in his area had heard of the service, or knew what it did.

There is also a tendency for all new governments to assume they are starting from a ‘year zero’ position, so that new systems are required regardless of how well the existing ones are working or how much time and effort is put into reorganising systems.

Public health: from transition to transformation

Reorganising health systems is not always a good use of resources: Mark Gamsu

This led to lively discussion of what drives commissioners, and the kind of leadership that can be expected to make the new systems work effectively once they take effect in 2013.

This will have a direct effect on what Healthwatch can realistically achieve, given that its lack of statutory powers mean it could face the same problems of tokenism and inability to effect change that have affected LINks. There a was both positive and negative experience among delegates, who included commissioners and current LINks members, about how likely it was that Healthwatch could have the necessary influence to hold local services to account. As one LINks member put it, very few people in his area had heard of the service, or knew what it did.

Mark gave an example of how important it is that information reaches the people who need it. Sheffield Mental Health Citizens Advice Bureau gives advice to patients on mental health wards, helping to bring the outside world into an institutional setting.

Ultimately, Healthwatch’s success matters for public health professionals because without local accountability for health services, there is a risk that health inequalities will be increased. Healthwatch’s success will be measured in part by how complaints are heard and acted on. With the final report from the Staffordshire public enquiry due in October, there is still much to be learnt about how statutory bodies act on the information they receive.

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by Daria Kuznetsova, researcher,  New Local Government Network (NLGN)

Local government is once again a major player in the health arena. With a new public health duty and a leading role to play in the new Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWBs), councils have an opportunity to generate much greater efficiency and effectiveness.

Moreover, as this is the first time clinicians, politicians and local government officers have come together, there is a once in a lifetime opportunity to rethink and redefine preventative health interventions to radically improve the health outcomes of the local population. In a recent research report, we began to map out how local government could take up the role of the ‘health improving council’ implied by the recent reforms.

The new arrangements will certainly create opportunities, and there are reasons for optimism: among those involved in the agenda, our research reveals a relatively high degree of confidence (3.85 out of 5) in HWBs. However, it is already evident that creating stronger relationships across an increasingly complex health and social care sector will not be without its challenges. Sixty six per cent of survey respondents said that organisational differences were the most significant factor which might limit the effectiveness of their HWB.

Organisational divisions and territorialism in decision-making and budget-setting will be particularly problematic, particularly where hard choices have to be made to divert limited resources from existing services to new priorities. To encourage honesty in these ‘difficult conversations’,  we recommend HWBs design ‘prenuptial agreements’ illustrating the commitment and contribution each board member is prepared to make to the board.

The effectiveness of HWBs will depend on their ability to engage with a wide variety of external stakeholders, which they can influence only indirectly. However as local government only has soft powers at their disposal, there is a danger of public health not being prioritised by other local agencies.

We propose legislating a “duty to cooperate” with HWBs, similar to that in the Localism Act 2011, for public bodies. We further propose the HWB chair should have a ‘call in’ power to local authority departments commissioning services (for example in relation to the use of CIL) to ensure local authority delivery takes the Joint Health and Wellbeing Strategy into account.

At the heart of the changes lies an opportunity for a new era of public involvement in health services and prevention. By engaging residents, particularly ‘hard to reach’ groups, HWBs will be able to design interventions that meet immediate needs but also reduce demand in the long term. To ensure public engagement is prioritised, we recommend that HWBS should publish an explicit strategy for public involvement in their work.

Our research found that budget pooling is seen as the most effective tool available to ensure effectiveness of HWBs.  However 94 per cent of respondents felt that central government has provided insufficient incentives for integrated working. If local authorities are to succeed in reducing demand for acute services, they will need to shift resources to prioritise preventative measures. We suggest government should create “Health and Wellbeing Deals” whereby HWBs bring forward plans for pooling in exchange for the removal of regulatory or legal barriers to pooling as well as potential top-up funding for pooled budgets from central government.

The reforms in public health offer a real opportunity to reshape public services and drive preventative healthcare into everything local authorities do. However without tougher power for HWBs, they risk becoming a talking shop. We therefore strongly urge the government to legislate for a small number of hard, statutory powers which could turbo charge the new boards and ensure the emergence of a new generation of health improving councils.

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by John Middleton, Vice-President of the Faculty of Public Health

The results of our latest member survey show despair, uncertainty and distress about the NHS reforms. We share members’ anger and frustration, reflected in feedback from local boards and committees. The results articulate the possibility of a wholesale departure from the specialty and major risks to the protection and improvement of the public’s health and the services they receive.

Wordcloud: Adjusted responses (phrases/themed/categorized), first 200 responses (max 50 phrases)

Credit: Andrew Hood, using wordle.net

Wordcloud: Adjusted responses (phrases/themed/categorised), from the first 200 responses in the survey (maximum 50 phrases)

As peers continue to debate the reforms, attitudes of public health professionals, and FPH’s leadership, are hardening. Faced with a government which does not seem to value professionalism or standards, it is essential that we continue to fight for the standards, accreditation and regulation of public health. No-one else will – and our partners in the public health national lobby agree with our stance.

Members have broadly supported this direction of travel – until now.  The ignorance and disregard in high places of what public health is and has done over 40 years in the NHS is alarming. FPH continues to hold a strong expectation for:
•    An independent and robust Public Health England;
•    A coherent career and training structure for public health professionals;
•    Protection of terms and conditions of staff;
•    Directors of public health reporting to chief executives of councils,
•    Clarity in the size and applications of the ring fenced budget and
•    Professional regulation for all public health specialists.

These issues were met with welcome support in the House of Lords committee stage.  However, a substantial cadre of our members believe that the public health community must campaign more explicitly against the likely negative health impacts if the reforms go through unchecked.

The Secretary of State has had a duty to ‘provide and secure’ the NHS since it began.   NHS planning has historically relied on regulations and guidance, not legislation.  This enables the NHS to move forward if the Secretary of State is in charge. If not, every line of the Health Bill becomes crucial.

Hard-pressed local authorities will only do what they must by law CCGs also will only do what they are required to do in law. The health system becomes a giant free-for-all; everyone doing the least possible, or the most lucrative and pocketing taxpayers’ cash. Some services may be deemed ‘bad business decisions’ and not be provided.

Where will these be without the Secretary of State’s duty to secure? This is a health insurance versus public health model. It calls into question the ideal of public service with which most of our members entered the NHS. Everyone in public health and health service users should be concerned about that.

As part of this debate, we have invited a range of organisations to contribute to this blog.  It remains open for members’ comments and more formal critiques. We look forward to your contributions here and through your local board members and FLACS.

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Monkey drinks Cola in Addis Ababa

A monkey drinks cola in Addis Ababa

By Dr Jackie Spiby

Hello from Addis Ababa.

It is a warm and sunny morning. By lunchtime it will be hot, but not too hot as we are 2,400m high and there is usually a breeze. When I go out it will be dusty, smelly and, if I noticed it anymore, the air will be polluted. This is mainly due to the huge volume of taxis, buses and lorries, most of which are ancient and belch out dark smoke which hangs around the city. I walk everywhere or go on a crowded, filthy line-taxi; so am I green? I came on a plane so blew my green travel limit and I use plastic water bottles – well I have to as I can’t drink the water but I do boil and filter so I reuse the bottles. Plastic bottles are everywhere.

I am a VSO volunteer and working in a local NGO (though virtually totally funded by external donors).  After 32 years in the NHS it was time for a change. For me that is, not the NHS because, as we know, that happens all the time. It took some time getting through the VSO process especially as my husband is here as an accompanying partner. Attending the assessment day together was a new experience. Try doing a group activity (you know one of those management games) with your partner. VSO then sends your CV out to local VSO programmes for them to see if they want you. You don’t get a choice; you just get to say yes or no to an offer. The first one was way outside of my experience, the next we had to go in five weeks; the next wasn’t viable for my husband.  Despair; but finally Ethiopia came up, an HIV organisation at national level and a country of spectacular scenery with mountains. It wasn’t the Far East which was my preference but we are here and at some point we will get to the mountains.

I am working in an organisation called the Network of Networks of People Living with HIV (PLHIV) or NEP+ for short. The HIV epidemic in Africa is heterosexual. When it emerged in the early ’90s there were no HIV services.  PLHIV started to form groups to help themselves and a few very brave souls (many of whom are dead now) came out and said that they were positive and demanded acceptance and support. My organisation arose out of the formation of these groups. There are nine regional networks, two city networks and three national ones with some 400 local networks. Civil engagement is one area of activity but primarily they are organisations that help provide prevention, treatment and care as well as projects to increase skills and employability. However, that is changing as the government starts to provide a health service. So, as ever, an organisation in change.  To think I didn’t know about the Global Fund six months ago and now I can quote the rules chapter and verse.

HIV is about poverty here, the treatment may be free but food and shelter are not and many PLHIV can’t afford the basics. Nor is the treatment for opportunistic infections free, so TB and malaria are the main killers.

So here I am. NEP+ is some 30 people – all Ethiopian, except me. It is primarily male, except me. Originally the organisation’s staff were PLHIV. As the donors started to require financial statements, governance and the like, the professionals arrived. Now the balance has changed. Is that right? Should there be positive discrimination toward PLHIVs? Can someone who is sero-negative really know or understand what it is like to be positive or even what it is like to live in a family affected by HIV? All questions that I remember discussing in the ’80s when working at the King’s Fund. All answers gratefully received.

Now more and more HIV infected people are getting treatment and living. But there are still 14,000 HIV-positive babies born a year. In the UK and US the numbers are way below a hundred. Why? Many women don’t use antenatal services or won’t get tested. Why? Lots of reasons but for some their husbands won’t let them, accessing services is too difficult or their families tell them to use traditional services. Even if a woman is diagnosed, follow up is logistically difficult and complying to the full treatment and breast feeding regime complex in a developed country, let alone a rural village with no water or electricity. The net result is a take up of about 12% of prevention-of-mother-to-child-transmission treatment. One of the worst levels in Africa. Tragedy. All those avoidable deaths and HIV+ kids, let alone the number of women who don’t get treatment. The number of orphans is horrendous. The international, political voice on this one just isn’t there.

VSO volunteers work in local organisations and are paid a stipend which is equivalent to local salaries. So I am paid the same as our drivers, but I do get accommodation. That means we live and work in the community much more than the majority of ex-pats (called Farangis here) who work for international NGOS, the private sector or embassies. I think I am going native as I am starting to really empathise with my colleagues as we try to use the EU process for submitting a bid on a slow dial-up computer link or listen to a well-meaning expert from a big international NGO tell us we must do more on civil rights. Of course we should but at the risk of immediate shut down. There is a law forbidding NGOS to speak about civil rights. A classic case of can you do more inside the system or outside.  Only here is it outside the system but in the country or outside internationally? Oh I have a lot of learning to do.

Public health issues are everywhere including my diet. My hips are vanishing as my diet has drastically changed to minimal dairy with fruit, veg and carbs instead. Having had a fractured hip a couple of years ago I am a bit concerned about my calcium intake. I was taking supplements in the UK but stopped when there was a report on increased incidence of heart disease. I am eating injera, the local, unique dough that is eaten with everything. It looks like a chamois leather but isn’t too bad and is suppose to have some calcium in it.  Should I get Steve (my husband) to bring some calcium tablets back when he visits the UK in the summer?

Must go as visiting a local community project for orphans. More to come.

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By Andy Beckingham, ex-DPH and public health consultant now living and working in India

Indian back street

Indian back street

I spent much of 2010 in South India on sabbatical with Indian Institute of Public Health. Would my UK experience be useful? Or irrelevant in India? I made new friends and networks, loved the food, the heat and the work. I was incredibly lucky to find a great boss. Found myself helping identify the ‘burdens of disease’ for one state (pop c80 million) and working with the Indian government to focus primary care and work on social determinants, to address health needs – and often failing too. I worked on maternal mortality and discovered how hard it is to change things when social determinants are complex and women undervalued. My boss and I were asked by the government to assess the impact of climate change on the country’s health, and our contribution went into Climate Change and India: a 4×4 Assessment. It helped that I’d been a DPH in England, but getting this kind of work experience was mostly just luck. I returned briefly to a snowy UK, its NHS workforce shell-shocked to find their skills on the Government’s scrapheap. Hmmm – back to India…

2011 – I woke as the dawn appeared as a thin orange line over the Arabian Sea and the plane flew in over the Western Ghats. In 2010 I had met the CEO of a maternity hospital who’d asked if I’d like to set up midwifery training. Are you kidding?? Yes!! So In 2011 I find myself working in a hospital seriously dedicated to improving clinical quality. And in a world of private health care, nevertheless providing free health care for the poorest women. Our Consultant Obstetricians work 7am-9pm and sleep in the hospital when on call, to be quickly available when women have difficulties. A small village hospital 100 km away and run by nuns needed doctors, so our CEO is lending them two registrars for free and I’m helping them plan cervical screening and incontinence counselling to complement their obs & gynae sessions. Public health work here is like…  SO interesting, Dude…  I’ve made links with an NGO in the city’s biggest slum (estimated population… a million? We have no demographic nor epidemiological data) with no primary health maternity care there. Pregnant women walk 3km in 90ᵒF to the nearest private hospital. We plan to provide a free doctor. They’ll have their work cut out…

The maternity hospital I work for managed 5,000 births last year, 65% of them ‘high risk’. We’re developing a programme to train nurses to become professional midwives who will manage the normal births and free the obstetricians up to do the risky ones. India doesn’t really have midwives, so we will pilot their training and work, and evaluate whether they contribute to better maternal outcomes. So in 2011 I find myself writing the curriculum, setting up the training, plus a midwifery exchange programme with South Africa, London and Toronto. Almost every week another really interesting health issue arises. I love it here… want to come too?

PS: Spot the health inequality issues in the photo to win free biryani, bangles and a public health internship.

PPS: No salary available, find your own plane fare.

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Dr John Middleton, Director of Public Health for Sandwell and FPH Vice President, email vpPolicy@fph.org.uk

On first reading, the health bill seems silent on public health roles in the health service. More than 300 public health specialists and consultants who work in health service public health are justifiably nervous about what the future public health system holds for them. In a set of reforms establishing Public Health England and local-authority-based public health directors, they could have expected some acknowledgement. There is what we expected about the other two domains of public health: health protection and health improvement.

Fortunately the subtext of the bill holds much more hope for public health in health services. It confers duties of engagement, partnership, quality and reducing inequalities on the NHS Commissioning Board and GP commissioners.  Even Monitor needs public health – if it is to create national tariffs that genuinely reflect the most effective interventions delivered most efficiently rather than reward incompetence, gaming and worsening of inequalities in health services.

Health-services-related public health is arguably the most technically exacting facet of public health and certainly the most contentious. It requires rigorous knowledge of healthcare interventions and epidemiological and interpretative skills are needed to show what works and what does harm. As the margins of benefit from new drugs and treatments get smaller, careful analysis becomes ever more necessary. Assessing complex healthcare data is crucial activity – truly a matter of life and death – not an exercise of faceless bureaucracy or unnecessary management cost.  Some patients will die when we do decide to fund their high cost – and high risk – drug.

These funding decisions cannot be left to the newly emasculated NICE – implementation is local. The best national policies flounder if they are not locally understood and implemented.

Health services public health is not always popular – rationing decisions invariably get unravelled in appeals, press examination, in legal dispute and judicial review. There may be political expectation that big healthcare private organisations will bring the skills to evaluate healthcare for GP commissioners in the future. This has hardly been borne out by the   hospital deaths misinformation, or the quasi-scientific risk-stratification products on offer.

The return of public health to local authorities holds the welcome recognition of where the major influences on health still are.  Many of us cite McKeown’s decline of mortality since 1840 due to clean water, sanitation, better housing and working conditions, better nutrition and smaller family size. The big environmental challenges, work with social care on reablement and personalisation, and the need to reduce health inequalities are live issues for public health in local authorities. Twenty-first century diseases such as obesity, relationship and behavioural problems and addictions also lend themselves to big public health responses from a local-authority base.  But equally relevant in the 21st century is the health service contribution to life expectancy gain – Bunker, Frasier and Mostellar’s Millbank review concluded that about 30% of the life-expectancy improvement since the NHS came along was due to healthcare factors. The capacity for health services to do harm as well as good is immense, and the need to get better value for money in healthcare is ever more relevant.

There is growing recognition of the need for health promotion or ‘lifestyle’ interventions in healthcare. Acute services are seeing it as part of QUIPP and many are instigating ‘stop before the op’ smoking cessation programmes. GPs also increasingly have opportunities to refer to food and fitness services, psychological therapies and addiction-brief interventions. It is easy to see how GP commissioning should be involved in commissioning alcohol services – jointly with the local authority DsPH – to cover all preventive and therapeutic interventions. Less easy, but just as relevant in reducing hospital dependency, would be joint commissions on fit-for-work programmes, welfare rights and housing improvement.

With hospitals being more dangerous places than roads these days, health systems need public health skills more than ever. More than 30 consultants and specialists in public health work in acute hospital trusts. Hospitals, and health centres, are outlets for health information, signposts and venues for health promoting activity and potential exemplars of health improvement for staff, patients and visitors. Business choices for hospital and community trusts should be informed by good health-needs analysis, assessment of best evidence of effectiveness and evaluation. Care pathways should all include ‘lifestyle’ programmes as a key choice in the pathway– for example, before bariatric or vascular surgery.  This is equally relevant in GP commissioning. For the first time we are beginning to have good data about morbidity and about quality of care in general practice. These data have to inform the joint strategic needs assessments. But they also have to be interpreted and used in primary care.

Public health specialists need to be embedded in organisations because that is the only way their advice will be taken on – consultancies we all take or leave. There should be consultant level public health expertise in all arms of the new health system – including the NHS Commissioning Board and Monitor. But we need also a coherent base on which all the public health training and development is founded – only Public Health England appears capable of that. There are encouraging signs that GPs and others in the new NHS are recognising the need for healthcare public health – you won’t find it in the health bill.

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By Alan Maryon-Davis

The public health white paper promises to ‘improve the health of the poorest fastest.’ Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has said that closing the health inequalities gap is a top priority, echoing the Marmot Review – ‘more must be done to tackle the causes of the causes of ill-health.’ To this end he has set up a cross-government committee on public health and has proposed a shift of responsibility for health improvement onto local government, along with a ‘ring-fenced’ public health budget. Joined-up at the top and bottom.

So far, so good. Many would agree that local government is the natural home for the public health and wellbeing agenda. It’s where the big local decisions about social determinants take place and where a properly coordinated approach could really pay off. Localism in action.

The flipside of course is that the Coalition’s Health Secretary, with one deft move, will be off-loading this most stubborn of health challenges. Despite massive investment by the previous government, the inequalities gap has continued to widen. In taking on this agenda, local authorities might find themselves accepting a poisoned chalice.

If that was apparent before the Chancellor’s spending review, how much more so it is now we know the breadth and extent of Osborne’s austerity drive. Massive cuts in benefits and public services, soaring unemployment, a deep-frozen NHS and the rise in VAT, all add up to millions more people in difficulty – a situation which, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, is bound the hit the poorest hardest.

We know that maternity problems, infant ill-health, low uptake of childhood immunisation, poor oral health, child and adolescent mental ill-health, accidents and violence, depression and suicide, cancer diagnosis and heart disease, and the debilitating dependency of old age are all strongly linked to social deprivation. We can surely expect a huge upsurge in demand on the NHS – at a time when services are already overstretched.

As ever, it will be the disadvantaged who will miss out. The health inequalities gap is bound to widen and no amount of shifting the public health deckchairs, as envisaged in the public health white paper, can stop it. Indeed the distraction and planning blight that comes with the wider NHS reorganisation laid out in the Health & Social Care Bill can only add to the barriers faced by disadvantaged people.

The Health Secretary no doubt sees all this, but is determined to push his changes through, despite a barrage of opposition from many quarters. His view is that, whilst things will be tough in the early years, there are green Elysian Fields beyond. In the meantime, we can help him to get it right by responding to the White Paper consultations and cajoling our MPs to amend the Bill as it goes through Parliament.

A key issue is the ring-fenced budget for public health, particularly for the health improvement element that will be passed to local authorities. We don’t yet know the size of the ring-fenced allocation at national level, although a figure of about £4billion has been bandied about. That sounds a big number – but by the time the many millions have been taken out to support the work that the Health Protection Agency is currently doing, and the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, and national campaigns, and various other central initiatives, the amount distributed to local level will be much truncated.

And then that local pot gets divvied up between the Public Health England unit, public health support to GP consortia, prevention activity by GPs, immunisation, screening, drugs and alcohol, child health checks, health visiting, etc etc – the list goes on. So, what will be left to hand over to local authorities to tackle the health and wellbeing agenda? Not a lot, I suspect. Local authorities (and their Directors of Public Health) will be taking on a huge added responsibility with very little resource to throw at it. More for less indeed.

And those LAs struggling to improve their health outcomes because of challenging demographics could find themselves further disadvantaged by the Health Minister’s proposed ‘health premium’ scheme. The intention is to reward only those LAs who ‘make significant progress’ towards better outcomes, including reduced health inequalities. But those of us who have worked with multi-deprived populations know how difficult this can be, despite heroic efforts, without major demographic change. Although we’re told the health premium assessment would take deprivation into account, there’s every chance that yet again it would be the more disadvantaged populations who miss out on any extra funding. So much for improving the health of the poorest fastest. No, as bright ideas go, I can’t help thinking this isn’t one of them.

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By Alan Maryon-Davis

There’s plenty of Christmas cheer in the public health white paper. Warming words about the importance of protecting and improving health.

A bulging sackful of goodies – health improvement to be a statutory duty for local authorities; directors of public health (DsPH) to be embedded in local government where they truly belong; a new national public health service (Public Health England) to extend the kindly hand of the Department of Health to local level; a gift-wrapped ring-fenced budget for public health. Even a heavenly choir chanting about improving the health of the poorest fastest. It could all be straight out of Dickens.

But let’s not reach for the mulled claret and wassail too soon – there are a few reindeer in the room. For instance, the white paper says there will be ‘minimum constraints on how local government decides to fulfil its public health role and spend its new budget.’ So will DsPH have any real clout in the new set-up? Will they be on a par with chief officers reporting direct to the council CEO? What influence will they have over the public health budget? Just how ‘ring-fenced’ will it really be – and for how long? We’ll have to wait for further guidance next year – but it looks as though councils will have pretty free rein.

Then there’s the crucial issue of joined-upness. How effective will the linkage be between local government, GP commissioners, the local PHE health protection unit, and other stakeholders? We know the instrument will be the local Health and Wellbeing Board, using the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment as a blueprint – but how well will these boards work? We’ve had patchy experience with Local Strategic Partnerships. The whole new public health edifice will stand or fall on how robustly these boards are set up. Again the blueprint is forthcoming.

And no details yet on how local authorities will be rewarded on their achievement of health outcomes – or not, as the case may be. The public health outcomes framework is still being worked on, as is the reward system. But the metrics of public health are notoriously complex and shifting. Populations don’t stay still. Mortality-based outcomes are far too blunt and sluggish to be used for real-time monitoring and performance rating. Health behaviours such as smoking, drinking, diet and exercise are too much influenced by externalities. Even risk factor prevalence has its problems. It would take an Einstein to come up with a fair approach to dishing out the ‘health premium’ for good results.

The outcome of improving the health of the poorest fastest is a case in point. As the ex-DPH of a deprived inner-city borough I particularly worry about those areas struggling to reduce health inequalities. Even in times of plenty the gap remained stubbornly persistent – the better-off have always tended to improve their health faster than the have-nots. If anything, the government’s drastic cuts look set to hit the poorest hardest, with negative consequences for health. It would be cruelly unfair to penalise local authorities for failing to close their inequalities gap when the cards are so heavily stacked against them. That would surely be an act of Scrooge-like heartlessness in these hard times. Dickens would turn in his grave.

This blog post is also available on the HSJ website

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By Matthew Kilgour

What are the difficulties encountered when planning for and responding to natural disasters and adverse weather conditions in the UK?  This was the topic of discussion at the FPH Annual Conference session on Wednesday 7 July,  featuring contributions from Lucy Reynolds from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Wayne Elliott, Head of the Health Programme at the Met Office, Shona Arora, NHS Director of Public Health for Gloucestershire, and Andy Wapling, NHS Head of Emergency Response for London.

The three key environmental factors affecting UK emergency planning and response were outlined as excessive cold, heat and flooding.  All the speakers were keen to point out that the implications of these factors stretch beyond immediate and physical dangers, and stressed the need to understand the social and mental health implications of events like floods or heatwaves. Andrew Wapling, discussed the need to conflate the public health and emergency response agendas saying, “the quicker an effective response is mounted, the lesser the impact on individuals.“  He cited early response to disasters as a key determinant in minimising longer-term implications.   He also stressed the need to identify critical infrastructure and the events that could potentially ground services and impede response.

Shona Arora discussed her involvement with the response to 2007’s flooding in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. The flooding heavily disrupted day-to-day patterns of life, and vulnerable individuals and groups like the poor, the elderly or those with learning difficulties did not, in many cases, have access to the information or resources to protect themselves.  Lucy Renolds stressed this same issue in her closing remarks by saying, “it is always the poorest communities who are affected the worst”.  Large percentages of individuals affected by the flooding did not have sufficient insurance, and many were left without access to serviceable kitchens.  Ms Arora admitted that the evidence base for pre-empting eventualities like these was thin, and placed emphasis on the need to address this factor.

Lucy Reynolds highlighted the key role that mass media can play in information sharing and raising public awareness in response to disasters.  She stressed the need for reliable communications networks when dealing with disaster relief, as public phone network can become overloaded and unreliable.  The need for effective and reliable communication between departments was emphasised repeatedly throughout the session. Wayne Elliott from the Met Office said that “unless you communicate at the right time, and in the right manner, nothing will get done.”

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