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BPS Policy Unit

Protecting the public – improving lives

03 October 2018 | by BPS Policy Unit

Public Health England’s annual conference at Warwick University attracted over 1500 delegates and featured an impressive (not to mention lively) 48 sessions spread over two days.

These sessions were themed into:

  • Science and evidence
  • Investing in prevention
  • Working towards a healthier, fairer society
  • Place, environment and global
  • Public health planning and future trends

Opening the conference, PHE Chief Executive Duncan Selbie spoke of the widening gap between the health outcomes of the rich and those of the poor, and how the continued increase in life expectancy has stalled. He saw PHE’s priorities as tackling the following:

  1. Smoking intervention (1 in 4 people in hospital smoke)
  2. Child obesity (In 2016/2017, 26% of 4 and 5 year olds were overweight or obese)
  3. Prevention of diabetes in adult
  4. Prevention of Cardiovascular disease
  5. Mental health

The event also saw Professor John Newton, Director of Health Improvement, launch the Health Profile for England, 2018

The launch of this report laid bare some troubling facts, such as that although as a society we are living longer, this increased lifespan often equates to poorer overall health (particularly the last decade of life) and an increase in stubborn health inequalities.

Not only that, but while mortality rates for heart disease are falling, mortality rates for dementia have increased.

Even more shockingly, the gap in health inequality between rich and poor has actually widened, with the difference in good health now being approximately 19 years.

And while those with mental health conditions tend to have the lowest quality of life, obesity and smoking remain the leading causes of death.

Not only this but 30% of the population are still living below the minimum income standard, and people with learning difficultues continue to struggle with extremely low employment rates.

The conference also featured Susan Michie who talked about Artificial Intelligence meets Behavioural Science: The Human Behaviour-Change Project.

In this talk she argued that behavioural science needs radical change if we are to improve our individual and collective well-being and that, to date, behaviour change projects have had a mixed level of impact with only modest and/or variable effects.

The aim of The Human Behaviour-Change Project is to build an Artificial Intelligence system which will continually scan the world literature on behaviour change, extract key information, and use this to build and update a model of human behaviour to answer the big questions:  ‘What behaviour change interventions work, how well, for whom, in what setting, for what behaviours and why?’

The keynote speaker was Professor Dame Theresa Marteau who spoke with eloquence and authority on Changing Minds About Changing Behaviour.

Theresa’s lecture outlined some stark figures, such as that 95% of people are inactive, 65% are overweight, 25% drink too much, and 15% smoke.

To address these worrying numbers Theresa advocated the use of multiple behaviour change approaches.

Currently, at population level, simply providing people with the relevant risk information rarely results in them changing their behaviour. However it's well-documented that our environment has a strong effect on our behaviour. For example, over time, portion sizes have increased massively, and the larger the portion size, the more people will eat.

By encouraging downsizing, the using of using smaller portion sizes, smaller plates, and smaller glasses, we could actively influence the way people eat and, through this, exert some indirect (though still effective) influence on some of those worrying figures quoted above.

Ultimately the important thing to take away from all of this is that the way we communicate evidence will have a major effect on how likely it is to actually affect changes in people's behaviour.

And to do this we need to partner with civil society organisations to not only change public opinion, but to change the political approach.

- Nigel Atter, Policy Advisor

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