Fuse blog

Public health isn’t good politics (part 2) (Fri, 22 Jun 2018 05:00:00 +0000)

Knowledge exchange lessons from the spotlight event at the University of Sunderland

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Research Manager, Teesside University and John Mooney, Senior Lecturer, University of Sunderland

In our last blog, we reported on the 4th Fuse international conference on knowledge exchange in Vancouver, B.C. Provocative speakers explained that public health is, at best a hard sell to policy makers and at worst impossible to influence decision making. Luckily, they also presented short cuts for making it more likely that public health evidence would be heard by policy makers.

Sharon Hodgson, Shadow Minister for Public Health, speaking
at the Spotlight on Public Health event in Sunderland
These challenges and the potential short cuts were clearly present at the University of Sunderland spotlight event that we attended, which aimed to increase the visibility of public health research at the university.

Sharon Hodgson, the Shadow Minister for Public Health, opened the afternoon session with a passionate plea for introducing a minimum unit price for alcohol in England, following the example of Scotland. However, she made it clear that the Scottish choice for a 50p unit price would be a hard sell to both her voters and the Labour party. Labour colleagues simply dismissed the policy as a ‘tax on the poor’ and voters would feel the pinch on their already austerity squeezed household budget.

This ignited a lively debate with researchers in the room, who highlighted the research evidence that is available in favour of a 50p unit price. While statistical models consistently demonstrate that this would have the biggest impact on reducing alcohol related harm, such as liver disease, the Shadow Minister was concerned with how the price selected might impact on her voters. Specifically, she felt it was more important that increased costs to people living in more deprived communities were not dismissed, but instead presented as a health improvement incentive.

Having visited various supermarkets in her constituency to check the prices of different types of alcohol in order to work out the impact of different MUP limits, her conclusions sided with the views of the voters and Labour peers: 50p would hit all the different types of alcohol and not just the cheap ciders and therefore penalised not just the heavy drinkers but also the moderate drinkers in deprived communities. Instead, she argued for a 40p unit price, which would mostly affect the price of cheap ciders, and therefore target only the problem drinkers and not the other drinkers in her constituency. What counted as the most important evidence for the Shadow Minister was quite different from what the researchers in the room perceived as the best evidence to inform policy.

When an audience participant also tried to make the economic case by suggesting that the 50p tax would generate a better return for the Government that could be used to finance alcohol addiction services, the Shadow Minister remained unconvinced.

What did start to sway her was another suggestion to change the narrative from a ‘tax on the poor’ (which might be used as a stick by Conservative party members to beat their Labour colleagues), to a ‘tax for the wellbeing of all’. This narrative framed the 50p MUP as a policy that would affect all walks of life and could encourage a change in drinking cultures among all ages and classes, with the money raised being reinvested across a range of policy areas.

Shanon Hodgson agreed that this might make for an ‘easier sell’ and perhaps more importantly serve as the basis of a future health legacy that she could leave for her voters. By reframing the narrative from a small group problem (problem drinkers in deprived communities) to an emotive public issue of damaging drinking cultures, better policy and voter engagement might be secured.

Paul Cairney presenting at the 4th Fuse International
Conference on Knowledge Exchange in Public Health  
The evidence that she really needed were stories to demonstrate meaningful (personal) health gains and cultural change across different sectors of society. This requires a new type of evidence. It does not mean dismissing academic research and all the rigorous evidence it generates, but it does require a careful consideration of the policy system and process in which it is used and a willingness to adapt the messages and narrative to that context and the other types of evidence that are prevalent in that context. This is neatly summarised in the top tips from political science offered by Paul Cairney in his presentation at the 4th international Fuse conference:
  1. Find out where the action is (‘actors’) 
  2. Learn the rules (‘institutions’) 
  3. Learn the language/ currency (‘ideas’) 
  4. Build trust and form alliances (‘networks’) 
  5. Be entrepreneurs, exploit ‘windows of opportunity’
Public health researchers operating as political entrepreneurs might be a hard sell to academic institutions but they have a world to win when trying to get evidence into decision making where it matters and creates impact.

The Government’s new Clean Air Strategy – hope or hype? (Fri, 15 Jun 2018 05:00:00 +0000)

Dr Susan Hodgson, lecturer in Environmental Epidemiology and Exposure Assessment at the MRC-PHE Centre for Environment and Health, Imperial College London

© 2018 Imperial College London
Air pollution was been high on the agenda at Imperial College London recently, with Environment Secretary Michael Gove choosing to launch the Government’s new Clear Air Strategy at Imperial’s Data Science Institute[1]. To coincide with this launch, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced a new tool, developed by Imperial and the UK Health Forum, to help local authorities estimate the health-care costs due to air pollution - an estimated £157 million from exposure to fine particulates and nitrogen dioxide across England in 2017[2].

Academics and researchers worldwide have worked over many decades to produce an evidence base of high quality research which now clearly links air pollution and health. Globally, 4.2 million deaths are attributed to outdoor air pollution, with 91% of the world’s population living in areas where air quality exceeds health-based guidance limits[3]. Figures for the UK also make grim reading, with an estimated 40,000 deaths per year attributable to outdoor air pollution[4]. While research on this topic makes an unequivocal case for action, Government policy to improve air quality for public health has been found lacking, with the UK (along with France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Romania) being taken to the European court of Justice for failing to meet EU limits for nitrogen dioxide.

© 2018 Imperial College London
The new Clear Air Strategy[5] outlines how the Government plans to protect the nation’s health. The stated intention of halving the number of people living where concentrations of fine particulate matter are above 10μg/m3 - the concentration of an air pollutant is given in micrograms (one-millionth of a gram) per cubic meter air or 'µg/m3' - by 2025, if achieved, would reap a significant health dividend. However, the focus on a ‘personal air quality messaging system to inform the public…about the air quality forecast [and] air pollution episodes’ places onus on individuals to avoid exposure, rather than creating clean and safe environments within which to live. While there is a place for such messaging, when more than 2000 education/childcare providers across England and Wales are within 150m of a road breaching the legal limit for Nitrogen dioxide pollution (25 of which are in the North East and more than 1500 in London)[6], is it clear that a population based approach is required to tackle this pressing public health issue.

The Strategy also restates the previously announced plan to phase out conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, to be replaced by zero exhaust emissions vehicles. This is a positive step, but not sufficient to tackle traffic-related pollution. What comes out of the exhaust represents less than half of vehicle emissions; ‘clean’ vehicles will still generate pollution from tyre and brake wear, and re-suspension of road dust, as explained by Imperial PhD student Liza Selley in her 2016 Max Perutz Science Writing Award-winning essay[7].

The Strategy proposes steps to address not just road traffic pollution, but also shipping, aviation, agriculture and industry, and links health, the environment and economy, marking a welcome move away from silo thinking. There is also mention of ‘appraisal tools and accompanying guidance…to enable the health impacts of air pollution to be considered in every relevant policy decision that is made’ – it is not clear if this extends beyond policy decisions on air pollution, i.e. represents a move towards a coherent ‘health in all’ approach[8], but, if so, would represent a welcome prioritisation of health across Government departments.

© 2018 Imperial College London
Focussing on cleaner vehicles and technological solutions can only offer a partial solution to reducing the impact of air pollution on health, so it is good to see modal shift towards public transport and active transport is mentioned (briefly) in the Strategy. There are funds to support bus and rail infrastructure to improve public transport, and an ambition to double the levels of cycling by 2025 - though this would only raise levels from 2% to 4%, compared to 39% in the Netherlands[9].

If the Government is serious about adopting a more holistic approach to the environment, health and economy, then I feel far more could have been made of the great potential to tackle air quality, sustainability and health collectively. We need ambition and vision to create sustainable cities, and approaches to transport and living that reduce air pollution and additionally tackle inactivity and obesity, which are key drivers of population health. Barcelona’s Institute for Global Health recently launched its #CitiesWeWant initiative[10], which highlights some of the features we need to be prioritising in our cities to benefit future health and wellbeing. We have the research evidence to support these priorities, but Governments will require buy-in from experts and demand from the public to enact bold change. Those passionate about improving our environment for health have the opportunity to voice their views via the Government consultation on this newly launched Clear Air Strategy, which will inform a National Air Pollution Control Programme due March 2019.


The views represented here are those of the author, Dr Susan Hodgson.

Susan is a lecturer in environmental epidemiology and exposure assessment at the MRC- PHE Centre for Environment and Health at Imperial College London. Her research focusses on understanding how interactions with our environment (including air pollution), influences health.

More details at: www.imperial.ac.uk/people/susan.hodgson


References:
  1. https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/186390/michael-gove-launches-governments-clean-air/
  2. https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/186406/air-pollution-england-could-cost-much/
  3. http://www.who.int/airpollution/en/
  4. https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/projects/outputs/every-breath-we-take-lifelong-impact-air-pollution
  5. https://consult.defra.gov.uk/environmental-quality/clean-air-strategy-consultation/user_uploads/clean-air-strategy-2018-consultation.pdf   
  6. https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2017/04/04/air-pollution-nurseries/
  7. http://www.insight.mrc.ac.uk/2016/10/14/braking-perceptions-of-traffic-pollution/
  8. http://www.who.int/healthpromotion/frameworkforcountryaction/en/
  9. https://ec.europa.eu/transport/road_safety/specialist/knowledge/pedestrians/pedestrians_and_cyclists_unprotected_road_users/walking_and_cycling_as_transport_modes_en
  10. https://www.isglobal.org/en/ciudadesquequeremos

Young people in the UK drink more energy drinks than any other countries in Europe (Fri, 08 Jun 2018 12:10:00 +0000)

Posted by Amelia Lake, Associate Director of Fuse and Reader in Public Health Nutrition at Teesside University and Shelina Visram, Senior lecturer in public health at Newcastle University

It would be a bit shocking to see children and teenagers drinking espressos, yet it’s socially acceptable for young people to reach for energy drinks to give them a quick “boost”.

Energy drink sales in the UK are now worth more than £2 billion a year

Unaffected by the economic crisis, energy drinks are the fastest growing sector of the soft drinks market. Between 2006 and 2012 consumption of energy drinks in the UK increased by 12.8% – from 235m to 475m litres.

These drinks are very popular with young people – despite coming with a warning (in small letters on the back) that they are “not recommended for children”. A survey conducted across 16 European countries found that young people between the ages of ten and 18 in the UK consume more energy drinks on average than young people in other countries – just over three litres a month, compared to around two litres in other places.

More than two-thirds of young people surveyed in the UK had consumed energy drinks in the past year. And 13% identified as high chronic consumers – drinking them four to five times a week or more. Research also suggests that these drinks are more popular with boys and young men.

What goes into energy drinks?


Energy drinks are usually non-alcoholic and contain ingredients known to have stimulant properties. They are marketed as a way to relieve fatigue and improve performance: “Red Bull gives you wings”.

They contain high levels of caffeine and sugar in combination with other ingredients, such as guarana, taurine, vitamins, minerals or herbal substances. A 500ml can of energy drink for example, can contain 20 teaspoons of sugar and the same amount of caffeine as two cups of coffee.

Caffeine stimulates the central and peripheral nervous system. Consumed in larger doses, it can cause anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness, gastrointestinal problems and heart arrhythmias.

In the UK, there are no clear recommendations for caffeine intake for adults or children, although both the Food Standards Agency and the British Soft Drinks Association recommend that children should only consume caffeine in “moderation” and that caffeine content over [150mg/l] should be declared on the packaging. The current scientific consensus is that [less than 2.5 mg a day] in children and adolescents is not associated with adverse effects.

Should we be worried?


The evidence indicates that these drinks do not give you wings – or any other positive benefits. In fact their intake in young people, is associated with adverse health outcomes. There is growing evidence of the harmful effects of these drinks. Teachers are concerned about the detrimental impact these drinks have on pupils in their classrooms. There is also a known association between soft drink intake, dental erosion and obesity.

Lesser known are the effects of the cocktail of stimulant ingredients – such as guarana and taurine – contained within these drinks.

Our recent review of the scientific literature set out to look for any evidence of associations between children and young people’s consumption of energy drinks and their health and well-being – as well as their social, behavioural or educational outcomes.

We found that for young people, drinking energy drinks is associated with a range of adverse outcomes and risky behaviours. They are strongly and positively associated with higher rates of smoking, alcohol and other substance use – and linked to physical health symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, hyperactivity and insomnia.

Why do young people buy them?


We also spoke with young people about their intake of these drinks. Discussions with our participants aged between ten and 14 indicated just how accessible and available these drinks are. They are also cheap – in some cases significantly cheaper than other soft drinks, as one of the girls we spoke to explained:

"I think it’s because like a normal can of Coke is like 70p, and [own brand energy drinks] are like 35p."

Our research found that energy drinks are often marketed on gaming sites and linked to sports and an athletic lifestyle – and are particularly aimed at boys. Taste, price, promotion, ease of access and peer influences were all identified as key factors in young people’s consumption choices.


Speaking with parents and teachers about these drinks there was confusion. Parents themselves identified the need for more information about energy drinks – and many admitted to not being fully aware of the contents and potential harmful effects on children.


Should they be banned?


Image used in a recent campaign led by Jamie Oliver
to ban the sale of energy drinks to under-16's
Recently there has been a move to restrict the sales of these drinks to under 16’s – an approach which has also been taken by other countries. This saw the self-imposed sales restriction by many larger retailers – including most supermarkets – to not sell to children under 16. But many places still continue to sell to young people – including convenience stores, which offer a wide range of brands, flavours and package sizes.

The Commons Science and Technology Committee’s enquiry into energy drinks called for submissions in April 2018 and will be reviewing in June 2018 – when we will also give oral evidence.

Of course, legislation to prevent the sales of energy drinks to under 16’s would be helpful. But the marketing of these drinks to young people through computer games and their association with sports is also a much wider issue. Far reaching discussions are needed about the direct and indirect marketing of these drinks (and other food and drinks) through multiple platforms other than TV – particularly through computer games.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Prevention by any other name would smell as sweet (Fri, 01 Jun 2018 05:00:00 +0000)

Guest post by Tom Embury, Public Affairs Officer, British Dietetic Association

Next week, June 4th - 8th is Dietitians Week 2018, where the British Dietetic Association and its members and allies celebrate the work of dietitians. This year’s theme is “Dietitians Do Prevention”, which intends to highlight the important role that dietitians have to play in prevention and public health. We know nutrition and hydration underpin so much of our health and getting it right can reduce the impact of illness, aid recovery, or prevent some diseases and conditions altogether.


NHS England’s Five Year Forward View, in the most recent frameworks from NHS Scotland and the Northern Irish Health and Social Care Service and is embodied in the principles of the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act.

It has been made clear by everyone from Marmot to the NHS Confederation that we need to strengthen prevention and that it should be everybody’s business. Despite this, many dietitians (and indeed healthcare staff in general) still don’t think of themselves as doing prevention or public health, especially as so many work in hospital settings, delivering acute care. Our recent 2018 member survey has shown that 40% of our members don’t feel that they do prevention or public health activity. This may be because they don’t have the time or resources, despite wishing to do so, but in some cases, it is because they don’t see public health as part of their remit.

Of course, we believe all our members “do prevention” and public health, but not everyone will call it by that name. Indeed, the term public health often seems to have quite a narrow definition, associated with the work of local government public health teams. This is important work, but by no means is that everything public health entails.

This is why, in preparation for Dietitians Week this year, we asked all our specialist groups for their view on how they do prevention. Our specialist groups cover pretty much all of the areas of dietetics - from paediatrics to older people, public health to critical care. What we found is that there are dozens of words and terms used to describe activity that is essentially a form of prevention.

Some were variations, like primary, secondary or tertiary prevention depending on where you work and what types of illnesses your patients have. Others, such as Making Every Contact Count or Healthy Conversations, relate to specific campaigns or initiatives. In areas like Mental Health or Paediatrics, a whole different language can exist. Even rehabilitation or recovery after acute illness is a form of prevention - preventing future episodes, further hospital visits or complications. One great example comes from Fuse itself – the research carried out into the impact of energy drink intake amongst young people has had an impact on national level policy making.

This is why we are trying to celebrate prevention in all its forms and with all its various names. Dietitians are and should to a greater extent be a core part of the public health workforce.

Our incoming Chairman, Caroline Bovey, highlighted this issue with terminology and understanding at our recent Annual General Meeting. She asked the crowd of over 100 dietitians to raise their hands if they were involved in public health. Some hands went up but they were definitely in the minority. She then asked who had a twitter account where they talked about diet and nutrition – far more hands shot up. “You are all”, she said, “doing public health dietetics”.

So, whether you’re having a healthy conversation or making every contact count, supporting rehabilitation or reducing hospital admissions, celebrate the way that you do prevention. We can’t let the terminology get in the way of sharing best practice or spreading good ideas. We’d love you to tell us about it as part of Dietitians Week! Get in touch via dietitiansweek@bda.uk.com

Public health isn’t good politics (Fri, 25 May 2018 05:00:00 +0000)

Knowledge exchange lessons from the 4th Fuse international conference (part 1)

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Research Manager, Teesside University

When I attended the Fuse knowledge exchange conference in Vancouver, B.C. earlier this month, I did not know that some Canadian squirrels are black.

I also did not know how much knowledge exchange was embedded in Canadian research. In the UK we are struggling to get researchers involved in knowledge exchange while working in an academic system that does not reward these activities. For Canadian researchers this is a fundamental part of their job and firmly embedded in the CIHR (the Canadian equivalent of NIHR) mission statement: "… excel the creation of new knowledge and its translation into improved health for Canadians" (Canadian Institutes of Health Research Act).

As surprised as I was to see black squirrels skirting the trees in Stanley Park in Vancouver, I was also surprised by the number of Canadian presenters at the Fuse conference who pointed to the impossibility of translating research evidence into practice.

For instance, Steven Hoffman, made a convincing case about public health being not good politics and therefore difficult to translate into policy. He argued that everything that public health does makes it invisible to policy makers. For example, we focus on prevention instead of treatment, which is much more difficult to observe and showcase.

An image from Steven Hoffman's presentation
Moreover, the more successful we are (when we prevent population diseases from spreading), the greater our invisibility becomes (there is no longer a disease to worry about) and, consequently, the more difficult it is to ask for more resources to keep prevention efforts up.

We also focus on supporting long-term chronic conditions instead of delivering acute services that can provide an instant solution to health problems. Furthermore, our data, as a population science, is based on statistical lives instead of individuals with a face and story. This all makes public health a hard-sell to politicians.

But it is not only our modus operandi that causes this hard sell: the system in which policy makers operate makes the use of research evidence unlikely. Paul Cairney from the University of Stirling explained in his talk that policy makers must ignore almost all the evidence that they are presented with to make decisions. They do this, not by weighing up the evidence carefully as we as researchers would like them to do, but by taking shortcuts, which Paul described as ‘bounded rationality’.

Policy makers either select evidence that helps them to reduce uncertainty about how to achieve their goals or, (and this is the more popular option) they apply their gut-level, emotional, belief-driven knowledge to reduce ambiguity about policy options. Moreover, policy makers are often not in control of the policy process and therefore they cannot tell us what evidence is useful, when and how it will influence the decision-making process.

If public health policy is not good politics and research evidence is a hard sell to policy makers, what can we do to make a better investment case for public health? Luckily both speakers provided their own shortcuts for making it more likely that public health and our evidence would be heard and used by policy makers:

1.) Recraft the narrative. Smoking was banned in public places not because smoking was harmful to smokers but because the campaigns focused on the dangers of second-hand smoke to the wider public, particularly children. By reframing the story from an individual blame game to an emotive public issue, public interest could be galvanised and used to put pressure on national Government to take action, building on local interventions already in place with a proven evidence-base.

2.) Take account of how democracy works: politicians need votes. As public health researchers we need to give them glory in the eyes of their voters and provide them with opportunities to leave a visible legacy. We could this by advertising our successes more clearly and by making it personal. Eugene Milne, Director of Public Health at Newcastle City Council, summed this up in a simple statement: "...‘it could happen to me’, mobilises people".

3.) However, to do this effectively, we need to be aware of hierarchy in politics and different policy contexts and networks. Most importantly, we need to be able to navigate diffused decision-making processes. As Paul emphasised in his presentation, policy makers have different ideas about what counts as good evidence, and there are many ‘policymakers’ across many levels and types of government. In other words, there are many sources of policy relevant knowledge that public health research evidence has to compete with.

It will take time and long-term relationship building to understand and navigate the different policy contexts, networks and types of evidence used in both. Unfortunately, public health students are generally poorly equipped to navigate these networks. Steven Hoffman remarked that we are not equipping our PhD students with knowledge of political systems and, in not doing so, set ourselves up for continued failure to make public health and our evidence visible to policy makers.

This does not mean that each student should become a political expert and advocate fiercely for her/his research findings. But it does entail a student being able to recognise their role in the wider system that they are part of, including various political networks and contexts. How can we teach our students to act from their position in a political system in a way that will make public health more visible?

This brings me back to squirrels. The squirrels that I encountered in the park stood out because they were black; a different colour to the common British grey and (less common) red squirrels that I’m used to seeing. In a similar vein, we could make our PhD students stand out by teaching them how to take evidence shortcuts in the political system.

Sharon Hodgson, Shadow Minister for Public Health, speaking
at an event in Sunderland
When I returned to the UK, with more appreciation for squirrels, I attended a spotlight event at the University of Sunderland the next day, which aimed to increase the visibility of public health research at the university. Although heavily jet-lagged, what sparked my interest at the event was a debate that took place between Sharon Hodgson, the Shadow Minister for Public Health and various researchers in the room. They sparred about the evidence for introducing a minimum unit price for alcohol in England and whether 40p made more ‘sense’ (and to who) than 50p. The ensuing debate demonstrated many of the arguments made in this blog and therefore will be the focus of my next blog (part 2) with John Mooney, Senior Lecturer at the University of Sunderland.

We will use this example to demonstrate how Canadian experiences might inform local practice in the UK by recrafting the narrative, taking account of Labour as an opposition party, and making it personal for voters.


Image: "Black Squirrel" (11997818194_8f66516b30_z) by DaPuglet via Flickr.com, copyright © 2018: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dapuglet/11997818194

Getting physical activity research moving (Wed, 09 May 2018 13:08:00 +0000)

Posted by Louise Hayes, Research Methodologist, Newcastle University and the Fuse Physical Activity Group

So, we all know we should be more physically active – the evidence is out there. People who are more active are less likely to suffer from many chronic diseases, have more energy, better mental health, sleep better…… But how do we get people to be more active?

We knew researchers across North East England were working on physical activity related research and we knew that practitioners were delivering physical activity interventions, with the aim of getting more people active. What we didn’t know was who was doing what and whether or not the evidence from the researchers was getting to the practitioners or if the practitioners were delivering evidence-based intervention or evaluating their interventions. So, a little over five years ago, Martin White, the then Director of Fuse, Laura Basterfield and I (two physical activity researchers at Newcastle University), set about getting physical activity researchers from across the region together. We wanted to provide a forum for researchers to share information on current and future research and to identify opportunities for collaborations across individuals and teams conducting PA research in the Fuse partner universities. The inaugural Fuse Physical Activity Workshop (#FusePAW) was held at Newcastle University in May 2013.

It quickly became apparent that there was an appetite for a Fuse Physical Activity Group to be formed to build upon the enthusiasm for collaborative working and developing a shared physical activity research agenda that was in evidence at this first PAW. Several people also made it clear (and yes, we do mean you, @Scottylloyd1979!) that there was a need to widen the base of the group to include our practitioner partners involved in delivering physical activity interventions on the front line and to build relationships across sector boundaries. And so the Fuse physical activity group was born!

Liane Azevedo and I took on the role of leading the group, along with a team including Scott Lloyd, Caroline Dodd-Reynolds, Alison Innerd and Natalie Connor representing the North East Universities and public health partners. Since then we have had twice yearly Fuse PAWs, hosted by each of the five Fuse Universities and covering a range of topics from inequalities in physical activity to measurement of physical activity and physical activity during pregnancy. We’re proud to say that we’ve achieved an equal balance of academics and practitioners attending the events.

From the outside it might look like it’s been plain sailing – we’ve attracted an amazing cast of physical activity researcher royalty to present at our events, (see the list below - to name but a few!). On the inside there has been blood, sweat and occasional tears! Will the speakers agree to come? Will anyone sign up to attend? Will there be enough parking spaces/coffee? Will we be able to afford fruit during the breaks or just (unhealthy, but delicious) biscuits? (The latter has often been uppermost in the minds of some of our delegates if the feedback we receive in our, now infamous, shiny blue feedback box* is anything to go by!)

We were nervous that attendance might suffer when austerity measures cut into our budget meaning we were no longer able to provide lunch – but happily attendance has steadily increased and we have begun to attract individuals from outside the North East and sometimes even from outside the UK!

It was great to celebrate our tenth PAW on 20th April 2018, following #Fuse10 on 19th April, and to think about our previous events. All the hard work definitely felt worthwhile as we reflected on the many interesting presentations, workshops and discussions that have come out of the FusePAWs as well as collaborations, including a joint evaluation of the Redcar school pedometer intervention by Northumbria and Leeds Beckett Universities.

As #FusePAW, we have a responsibility to ‘do
’ physical activity research better and try to capture how FusePAWs inform physical activity within the region and further afield. To this end we discussed how we can work together more effectively as academics and public health practitioners to challenge traditional methods for delivering and evaluating physical activity interventions to nudge the field forwards at this event.  If you have any suggestions on how we can do this please contact me at louise.hayes@ncl.ac.uk

Watch this space for findings!


The Fuse Physical Activity Group is Louise Hayes, Liane Azevedo, Scott Lloyd, Caroline Dodd- Reynolds, Alison Innerd and Natalie Connor


Just a few of our amazing cast of presenters

Professor Ashley Cooper (University of Bristol), Dr Esther Van Sluijs (University of Cambridge), Dr Paul Kelly (University of Edinburgh), Dr Nick Cavill (Public Health England), Bob Laventure (Loughborough University), Prof Charles Foster (University of Oxford) Dr Mark Tully (Queens University), Prof Tess Kay (Brunel University), Prof Adrian Taylor (University of Plymouth) and Prof John Saxton (Northumbria University).

* Look out for our next event to see it for yourself!

Responsibility for addressing obesity in local authorities: a changing landscape? (Fri, 27 Apr 2018 05:00:00 +0000)

Posted by Dr Amelia Lake, Fuse Associate Director, Reader in Public Health Nutrition at Teesside University and Tim Townshend, Professor of Urban Design for Health at Newcastle University 


Planning and obesity has been in the news again – it’s a topic that is hotly debated in local authorities across the country.

In April 2013 public health came ‘home’ to local government. This coming home meant a shift from the NHS to closer collaborations with other local authority colleagues. We wondered what it meant in reality, how did local authority staff from two disciplines - public health and planning - see their role around obesity prevention in this changed landscape? Our research [1], conducted between November 2013 and March 2014) explored the views of individuals working in public health and those working in planning within local governments on their responsibilities for addressing obesity using spatial planning.


We know that planning policy can impact on people’s wellbeing and health in terms of access to food and the environment encouraging physical activity. Using planning policy to tackle health problems such as obesity may not be novel but it could help tackle a global problem.

Our research was based in North East England. We interviewed three Directors of Public Health, one Deputy Director and four planners with a range of seniority.

There were some clear differences in their approaches to the issue of responsibility. Planners were asked about responsibility for obesity, physical activity and community nutrition. They saw a clearer link between planning and physical activity than with community nutrition, primarily citing sustainable transport, path provision and recreation, though one identified takeaways. One planner said, “At the end of the day, it’s down to the individual to address their obesity (Planner 4)”.

These differences in views on responsibility for health would suggest a difference of understanding amongst some within local government about the complex causes of obesity and how to address inequalities. However, one planner did point out that it is health professionals’ responsibility to “make the link” between planning and health, “because I don’t think people from planning would start from a health improvement stance”. This has implications for leadership and leadership roles.

Overall, our interviews identified a range of barriers to engaging with planners, including an insufficient understanding of the causes of obesity and the importance of addressing obesity via multi-agency approaches (involving cooperation between several organisations), fragmentation in the health system and conflicting priorities. Planners could be better engaged in the obesity agenda via formal incentives (e.g. written within planners’ job descriptions or regulations), and aligning priorities via ‘soft approaches’ (e.g. public health leadership roles).

There have been attempts to reunite health with planning. International evidence has highlighted the transdisciplinary (involving investigators from different disciplines) effort required to tackle obesity due to its multifactorial nature (it has, or stems from, a number of different causes or influences) and underpinning health inequalities. However, there appears to be little evidence that English planners have engaged with the new public health agenda. No detailed investigation has attempted to fully understand the barriers to engaging planners in health issues.

Gateshead City Council’s award winning
Supplementary Planning Document
Despite our region having national recognition for planning policies (see Gateshead City Council’s award winning Supplementary Planning Document), there are clearly some issues around increasing responsibility within the area of planning and health. However, this is a rapidly developing field. A recent survey of authorities in North East England, showed that all, bar one authority, now has, or is in the process of developing, guidance to prevent the proliferation of hot food takeaways (with some policy already being tested at appeal). Furthermore, a chance for planners and public health officers to meet to discuss the issue at a Fuse event on 21st May 2018 has been greeted with much enthusiasm. This suggests attitudes may be changing, particularly with planners engaged with policy development, who appreciate that health may line up with other planning aims such as protecting shopping area vitality. We will report on this soon.


The event on planning for health will be held on May 21st in Newcastle.  To register or find out more visit the event page on the Fuse website.

Reference:

Knowledge mobilisation: relationship guidance for ‘stubborn’ practitioners and ‘smug’ scientists (Fri, 16 Mar 2018 06:00:00 +0000)

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Research Manager, Teesside University

Last week, I presented at the UK Knowledge Mobilisation Forum in Bristol, which is an annual event for all those with a passion for ensuring that knowledge makes a positive difference to society. The Forum brings together practitioners, researchers, students, administrators and public representatives who are engaged in the art and science of sharing knowledge and ensuring that it can be used.

Getting creative sticking to ‘unconference’ principles
One of the key note speaker, Dez Holmes who is the Director of Research in Practice with 20 years of experience in championing evidence-informed practice in social care, vented her frustration about a question she was often asked by people interested in knowledge mobilisation (KMb): where can I access training in this? Her response: you can’t! Knowledge sharing is personal and therefore a social skill that you can only develop by practising it.

The skills needed to practice KMb are everyday skills, such as listening, emotional intelligence and persuasion. Reciprocity and mutual respect are crucial in relationships and therefore in knowledge mobilisation. Knowledge mobilisers use these skills to make knowledge relatable and therefore relevant to people’s lives. Dez used a Japanese word to sum up these skills: ‘ikigai’ (meaning “reason for being”): if we can’t relate knowledge to people’s sense of self they won’t be inclined to use it.

Acknowledging feelings in knowledge mobilisation is therefore important, not least because implementation barriers for knowledge are often personal. Dez quoted the common misperception between practitioners and academics that are at the heart of the so-called knowledge-to-action gap: “scientist blame the stubbornness of practitioners for insisting on doing it their way, believing they know their patients best, while practitioners lamented the smugness of scientists who believe that if they publish it practitioners will use it”. These misperceptions signify emotions at work in the knowledge gap that need to be addressed before we can start mobilising knowledge.

A great example of on the job knowledge mobilisation learning was captured in a story told by Vicky Ward, Associate Professor in Knowledge Mobilisation at Leeds University and one of the organisers of the Forum, who reflected on her research about knowledge sharing between professionals in social care. The story, titled ‘Dealing with the carousal of knowledge’, illustrates how practitioners continuously added new and different types of knowledge to their team meetings but never really made use of this knowledge until Vicky started asking some ‘constructively clue less’ questions. These questions helped them to recognise the emotions they attached to the client cases that they were discussing and enabled them to discover patterns in their carousel of knowledge. Identifying patterns allowed the professionals to select knowledge that was most useful for each case and made this knowledge transferable.

The conference format itself acknowledged the relational and context-specific work involved in knowledge mobilisation: participants were encouraged to hone their skills in randomised coffee trials, open space discussions, interactive poster sessions, market stalls, short presentations and practical, interactive workshops. The programme was deliberately based on ‘unconference’ principles, which means that it focused on offering opportunities for conversations, creativity and collaborative learning, with much of the direction being driven by the participants instead of the conference organisers. In this sense, the conference was a training ground for knowledge mobilisers to practice and learn new skills.

How industry-funded organisations mislead the public on alcohol & cancer (Fri, 09 Mar 2018 06:00:00 +0000)

Guest post by Dr Nason Maani Hessari, Research Fellow, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

When it comes to the risk of cancer associated with alcohol consumption, there is a significant disconnect between scientific evidence and public opinion.

The evidence of the independent link between alcohol consumption and cancer is clear, as emphasised by recent comprehensive reviews by the UK Committee on Carcinogenicity* (Committee on Carcinogenicity of chemicals in food, 2015), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, 2012). Drinking alcohol can cause a range of cancers, including oral cavity, pharynx (cavity behind the nose and mouth), larynx (voice box), oesophagus (gullet), colorectal (bowel and colon), breast and liver cancer. Furthermore, the risk of developing cancers of the mouth, throat and breast increases with any amount consumed on a regular basis (Department of Health, 2016). However, public awareness of this link remains low, with a 2016 survey reporting only 12.9% of respondents identifying cancer as a potential consequence of drinking too much alcohol (Buykx et al., 2016).

What does this have to do with the alcohol industry? Well, in the UK and many other countries, alcohol-industry funded organisations, called Social Aspects Public Relations Organisations (SAPROs), present themselves as sources of health information to the public, particularly around ‘responsible drinking’, underage drinking and drink driving (Maani Hessari and Petticrew, 2017). These organisations have been criticised for their inherent conflict of interest, as they are linked to large multinational alcohol producers, for whom a large proportion of profits come from harmful drinking (Casswell et al., 2016). The industry has a track record of focusing on education and individual responsibility, while lobbying against population-level measures to reduce alcohol-related harm (Babor and Robaina, 2013), even though these are evidence-based (Burton et al., 2017), and form the basis of the WHO Global Alcohol Strategy, in which alcohol producers participated (World Health Organisation, 2010).

Considering the role of the alcohol industry in providing information to consumers, we decided to examine the extent to which the industry fully and accurately communicated the scientific evidence on alcohol and cancer. To do this, we systematically examined the content of 27 industry-funded organisations or websites. In each case, we analysed how information regarding alcohol and cancer was presented, and whether the statements they made about cancer risk were in agreement with the scientific evidence, as presented in the Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) and IARC reviews.

We found that most alcohol industry SAPROs appeared to misrepresent evidence by denying, distorting or distracting from links to cancer, particularly breast cancer (Petticrew et al., 2017, Petticrew et al., 2018). A full list of examples can be found in our paper and the supplementary information, but as an example of denial, consider this:
“Moderate wine intake may actually reduce the risk of oesophagus, thyroid, lung, kidney and colorectal cancers as well as Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma…Concerning breast cancer, there may also be a protective role for wine.” [Wine Information Council].
When some risk was acknowledged, it was often presented alongside a range of other confounders, thus undermining the evidence that there is an independent relationship. For example:
“Alcohol has been identified as a known human carcinogen by IARC, along with over 1,000 others, including solvents and chemical compounds, certain drugs, viral infection, solar radiation from exposure to sunlight, and processed meat.” [International Alliance for Responsible Drinking]
Or in another instance:
“Not all heavy drinkers get cancer, as multiple risk factors are involved in the development of cancers including genetics and family history of cancer, age, environmental factors, and behavioural variables, as well as social determinants of health.” [Australia: Drinkwise].
It is not clear how the consumer is meant to interpret this information. The use of such descriptions to describe risk of cancer from smoking would in essence be both equally correct, and equally misleading. In fact, this type of language is highly reminiscent of arguments used by the tobacco industry, which emphasise the complex causes of lung cancer and coronary heart disease, in order to help deny the scientific evidence and identify other independent risk factors for smoking-related diseases to deflect focus from their products (Petticrew and Lee, 2011).

Since the publication of our findings (Petticrew et al., 2017, Petticrew et al., 2018), additional examples of alcohol industry representatives openly disputing the link between alcohol and cancer continue to emerge. For example, a recent study in the Yukon, Canada, examining the effects of adding a cancer warning label to alcohol (as one of three potential labelling options) has been suspended due to industry pressure.

Perhaps even more striking: as part of the ongoing debate in Ireland regarding the Public Health Alcohol Bill (PHAB), when a physician noted on live TV that alcohol was a carcinogen, a leading alcohol industry spokesperson countered inaccurately that alcohol was in fact, not a carcinogen, and that there were “…as many studies, medical studies, as there are on the ‘pro’ side…” (clip below).


It has been argued that greater public awareness, particularly of the risk of breast cancer, poses a significant threat to the alcohol industry (Connor, 2017). In response to other threats to profits, there is evidence that the industry has attempted to engage in “denialism” (Katikireddi and Hilton, 2015), and it appears this may also be the case for cancer, particularly breast cancer.

Currently, the alcohol industry remains involved in developing alcohol policy in many countries, and in disseminating health information to the public, including school children. Our research findings, which build on existing evidence regarding the activities of SAPROs (Babor and Robaina, 2013, McCambridge et al., 2014, Moodie et al., 2013), should be cause for a re-evaluation of such arrangements. The World Health Organisation has previously stated that ‘In the view of the WHO, the alcohol industry has no role in the formulation of alcohol policies, which must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests.’(Chan, 2013). The clear and obvious similarities to tobacco industry tactics that we report, which reflect the inherent conflict of interest, serve as a reminder that policies are but one aspect at risk of industry distortion.


All views expressed are those of the author.


References

BABOR, T. F. & ROBAINA, K. 2013. Public health, academic medicine, and the alcohol industry's corporate social responsibility activities. Am J Public Health, 103, 206-14.

BURTON, R., HENN, C., LAVOIE, D., O'CONNOR, R., PERKINS, C., SWEENEY, K., GREAVES, F., FERGUSON, B., BEYNON, C., BELLONI, A., MUSTO, V., MARSDEN, J. & SHERON, N. 2017. A rapid evidence review of the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of alcohol control policies: an English perspective. Lancet, 389, 1558-1580.

BUYKX, P., LI, J., GAVENS, L., HOOPER, L., LOVATT, M., GOMES DE MATOS, E., MEIER, P. & HOLMES, J. 2016. Public awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer in England in 2015: a population-based survey. BMC Public Health, 16, 1194.

CASSWELL, S., CALLINAN, S., CHAIYASONG, S., CUONG, P. V., KAZANTSEVA, E., BAYANDORJ, T., HUCKLE, T., PARKER, K., RAILTON, R. & WALL, M. 2016. How the alcohol industry relies on harmful use of alcohol and works to protect its profits. Drug Alcohol Rev, 35, 661-664.

CHAN, M. 2013. WHO's response to article on doctors and the alcohol industry. Bmj, 346, f2647.

COMMITTEE ON CARCINOGENICITY OF CHEMICALS IN FOOD, C. P. A. T. E. C. 2015. Statement 2015/S2.

CONNOR, J. 2017. Alcohol consumption as a cause of cancer. Addiction, 112, 222-228.

DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH 2016. UK Chief Medical Officers' Alcohol Guidelines Review - Summary of the proposed new guidelines.

IARC 2012. Personal habits and indoor combustions. IARC monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans.

KATIKIREDDI, S. V. & HILTON, S. 2015. How did policy actors use mass media to influence the Scottish alcohol minimum unit pricing debate? Comparative analysis of newspapers, evidence submissions and interviews. Drugs (Abingdon Engl), 22, 125-134.

MAANI HESSARI, N. & PETTICREW, M. 2017. What does the alcohol industry mean by 'Responsible drinking'? A comparative analysis. J Public Health (Oxf), 1-8.

MCCAMBRIDGE, J., KYPRI, K., MILLER, P., HAWKINS, B. & HASTINGS, G. 2014. Be aware of Drinkaware. Addiction, 109, 519-24.

MOODIE, R., STUCKLER, D., MONTEIRO, C., SHERON, N., NEAL, B., THAMARANGSI, T., LINCOLN, P. & CASSWELL, S. 2013. Profits and pandemics: prevention of harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed food and drink industries. Lancet, 381, 670-9.

PETTICREW, M., MAANI HESSARI, N., KNAI, C. & WEIDERPASS, E. 2017. How alcohol industry organisations mislead the public about alcohol and cancer. Drug Alcohol Rev.

PETTICREW, M., MAANI HESSARI, N., KNAI, C. & WEIDERPASS, E. 2018. The strategies of alcohol industry SAPROs: Inaccurate information, misleading language and the use of confounders to downplay and misrepresent the risk of cancer. Drug Alcohol Rev.

PETTICREW, M. P. & LEE, K. 2011. The "father of stress" meets "big tobacco": Hans Selye and the tobacco industry. Am J Public Health, 101, 411-8.

WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION 2010. Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol.

*Carcinogen is any substance or agent that promotes the formation of cancer


Image: ‘Spilling wine’ (3375802661_fc4ff615ba_z) by Gunnar Grimnes via Flickr.com, copyright © 2009: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gromgull/3375802661

How I chanced upon the 70 year War in Public Health: Aye vs Nay for Water Fluoridation (Fri, 09 Feb 2018 06:00:00 +0000)

Guest post by Priyanka Vasantavada, PhD student, School of Health and Social Care, Teesside University

Exactly a year ago to this day, I embarked on my PhD at Teesside University. Little did I know then that a year later I would find myself working on one of the most widely debated and contentious issues in public health.

Water Fluoridation is the controlled addition or removal of fluoride to water supply. Fluoride level of water is maintained at a level that is optimum for preserving dental health by making teeth resistant to decay. The practice of water fluoridation remains controversial even though half a century has passed since its first introduction. This is attributed to various issues such as, the possible negative health effects of fluoridation, lack of dose regulation at the individual level, if fluoride is mass medication and the ethical issues of consent or lack thereof.

Most academics seem surprised when I mention that water fluoridation is controversial. This may be because of the amount of research that already exists supporting the notion of the intervention being both efficient and safe. Water fluoridation happens to be one of the most widely researched topics in public health. Countries that artificially fluoridate water undertake systematic reviews every 5-10 years to update the evidence base. Studies conducted in areas with naturally high fluoride levels (i.e., fluoride endemic regions in parts of Asia) have linked high fluoride levels to skeletal disorders, and cancers etc. However, these studies are not relevant to artificial water fluoridation schemes as the health effects are dose dependent.

I vividly remember my first meeting with my Director of Studies Professor Vida Zohoori who had then asked me to come up with an original research idea and remarked, “A PhD is to foster independent scientific thought and not merely to work on a previously designed project”. I was a little taken aback by that as I had indeed applied for, and was selected to work on, an advertised PhD project! I ended up asking her what was left for me to research on this subject as seemingly all bases had already been covered. (I was neither completely wrong nor completely correct as I would realise in the months that followed.)

So, that day when I went home, I did what any millennial would do and Googled ‘water fluoridation’. Now before any of my readers from academia roll their eyes at this, I would like to clarify that I had already done a fair amount of background reading on water fluoridation from scientific databases and I also happen to be a dentist!

Through the looking glass

The search results were in equal parts exciting and exasperating. With each search results page I visited, my heart sank a little more. Every single idea that floated in my head was destroyed by the discovery of a research paper on the same. Then half exhausted and half asleep, I followed the millennial motto of ‘If you can’t read, why not watch it’!

I clicked on YouTube and just like Alice, fell right into a world I had never known existed! The ‘water fluoridation’ videos on YouTube were more mindboggling and engaging than any literature I had ever read (including but not limited to Game of Thrones). The videos attributed properties to water fluoridation or fluorides, which I had neither heard, read nor even imagined in my wildest dreams.

My curiosity peaked, and I kept trying to look for the scientific basis for the content in the videos. This search led me right into the thick of the controversy: the seemingly contradictory evidence, the prejudices, the sides and the politics around it. I found that it was not merely a controversy but an ongoing war where no one trusts one another and where battle lines are clearly demarcated. Pardon my use of dramatic language but this is the only way the situation can be described.

There are two major parties: those in favour of fluoridation and those against it. These groups are very heterogenous in their composition and no generalisations can be made. Both lobby for their own point of view and battle it out at every place across the world where water fluoridation as a public health measure is considered. And in this cacophony, I felt that the real opinion of the public is lost.

I then discovered that scientific studies on public opinion had been conducted in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, Norway, Denmark and Brazil. Small fluoridation opinion studies have been conducted amongst dentists and in certain localised parts of UK as well. However, a comprehensive study examining the aspects of public perception and engagement had not yet been undertaken in the UK. I had finally found a gap and thank God for it as in the months to follow, the advertised study I had applied for had to be shelved due to ethical concerns.


Since the fluoridation debates and discussions mostly take place on the web, I felt that this the ideal platform to engage people about the issue. To examine the public’s awareness and attitude towards water fluoridation in the UK, I have designed a 10-minute web survey (with optional follow-up e-mail interviews). There is even a prize draw for 10 e-shopping vouchers worth £10 each up for grabs! So, if you are interested to know more about the research or would like to participate, please follow the links below or email me at P.Vasantavada@tees.ac.uk.

You can complete the survey here



Image: By josconklin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

'Not making decisions on our behalf': Empowering communities to tackle health inequalities (Fri, 26 Jan 2018 06:00:00 +0000)

Guest post by Sue Lewis, Senior Research Associate, Institute of Health & Society, Newcastle University and Emma Halliday, Senior Research Fellow, Lancaster University

Community empowerment and the mobilisation of resident knowledge have long been seen as fundamental in tackling health inequalities. Recent strategic documents (e.g., Public Health England’s A guide to community-centred approaches for health and wellbeing and The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence community engagement guidance have, more recently, also drawn attention to the need to place communities at the centre of approaches to reduce damaging differentials in health and wellbeing.


Photo: Courtesy of Liz Kessler
Are we – practitioners and public – ready to make this happen? What do we know (from research, from local experience) and what do we still need to understand or address? Delegates at the recent Fuse Quarterly Research Meeting (QRM) spent a lively morning pondering these important questions.

Emma’s reflections on her experience of research in this field sets the scene:
“Since joining Lancaster University, much of my time has been spent interviewing residents and practitioners about community engagement in area based initiatives.

One of my first encounters was a retrospective look at New Deal for Communities (NDC) approaches to engagement. In some areas, people shared powerful examples of what had been achieved from collaboration placed on a more equal footing. As one resident explained: ‘it was physically, mentally everything, you were involved in it all and you feel proud because you’ve had, you’ve taken part in something good…there’s an awful lot of these projects have come to fruition and you can see, you know, you can actually see the difference that it’s made.’
Yet within the same programme, experiences varied significantly. Elsewhere, residents were left disillusioned about the falling away of an early commitment to engagement where the model became increasingly driven by ‘top down’ pressures. 
‘It moved away from gathering the views of the people and acting on the views of the people to involving the people in New Deal for Communities’, explained another resident.

More recently, the Big Local programme, funded by the Big Lottery and managed by Local Trust, has been the focus of research. The NIHR School for Public Health Research (SPHR) Communities in Control study, undertaken by a collaboration of academic partners including Fuse (Fuse lead, Professor Clare Bambra; researchers Dr Sue Lewis and Dr Vicki McGowan) and led by Professor Jennie Popay at LiLaC, is evaluating the health and social impacts of the resident led programme. While still early days, latest findings show positive impacts for wellbeing for residents actively involved in the programme but also that experiences of involvement can at times also be stressful and challenging.”
So the Fuse QRM (Empowering communities and mobilising resident knowledge to tackle health inequalities, January 11th, 2018) was an important opportunity for public health partners in the North East to reflect on ways of working that enable more equitable collaboration between citizens, the public and the third sector. An exercise to warm people to the topic indicated that many in the audience agreed that there were opportunities in the region (and beyond) for citizens to influence decisions that affect the places where they live. In contrast, far fewer felt that public sector agencies had a sufficiently good understanding of the barriers that impede participation. We clearly have a lot still to learn from one another.

James Hadman, Stockton Catalyst, stimulated thinking
 about grassroots projects having positive impacts but also
drew attention to the times when things don’t work so well
It’s important, then, to share what we already know. The morning included presentations that provided complementary perspectives on the issues at hand. Insights from James Hadman from Stockton Catalyst stimulated thinking about grassroots projects having positive impacts including the role of the Stockton Voice Forum (which gives Stockton’s voluntary, community and social enterprise sector a say in strategic developments in the Borough). Importantly, however, he also drew attention to the times when things don’t work so well, including barriers that were also identified in the New Deal for Communities (NDC) research: where engagement is top down, or driven by professionals’ agendas.

Alison Patey (Yorkshire and Humber Public Health England) gave the national picture, arguing that working with communities should be considered as valid as any other social determinant. A new programme of support is also offering online training for practitioners. And presentations from Emma and myself (Sue) offered the view from research, including findings from the Communities in Control study (in which three North East Big Local areas participated).

Looking ahead, the Communities in Control programme has received SPHR funding to produce resources for residents and practitioners. These will draw attention to the public health evidence already available for place based initiatives and take inspiration from stories of community action that illustrate the potential effects (positive and negative) for community participation and collaboration and, ultimately, empowerment, control and health inequalities.

There aren’t quick fixes to overcoming the imbalances of power between citizens and agencies. But it is, as a resident interviewed in the Communities in Control study put it, about creating a public health system where decisions don’t get ‘made on our behalf as to what they think we should have.’

Kale and running shoes (Fri, 12 Jan 2018 06:00:00 +0000)

Posted by Amelia Lake, Associate Director of Fuse, Dietitian and Reader in Public Health Nutrition at Teesside University


"January is our busiest month" said Hayley in the bustling fruit and vegetable shop in the small North Yorkshire market town where I live. This was on the first Saturday of January. She said their sales of kale had rocketed as people started juicing, eating better and generally trying to improve their diet. All this following the excesses of Christmas.

On Sunday morning, when I was out running (or trying to run on the icy pavements!), I was surprised at the number of runners pounding the streets in our small town. Then I remembered, it's the first weekend in January. Maybe, like me they have a shiny new gadget that they are somewhat obsessed with (how many steps have I done today?). There must be an exponential increase in the number of runners and kale consumers.

What is it about 'New Year, New You' that never fails to deliver and how long will these new behaviours be sustained? Why is it that our print and broadcast media don't grow tired of feeding us (excuse the pun) the same January story of …”you've eaten and drunk to excess in December now it's time to abstain from alcohol (Dry January) and go on an excessive unsustainable dietary regime”... Or the most recent health “craze” of ‘raw water’.

Our social media feeds are filled with so called 'nutrition and fitness experts'. The Instagram squares show us before and after pictures of success stories, quick fixes, rapid weight loss etc. etc... Not so many squares saying - look at your diets, your lifestyle, make sustainable changes as these are more likely to succeed in the long term (well apart from one of my professional organisations The British Dietetic Association).

What about the evidence? Does it advocate New Year's resolutions? Are we programmed to wait for the longer term goals or do we need to have instant results? A study published in 2016 suggests that while individuals may exercise for the long term goal of improved health, it is actually the immediate reward that predicts their persistence in that behaviour.

Ultimately these resolutions are about an individual's behaviour change. Much of our public health policy focuses on individuals changing their behaviours. Anyone who has tried to do this knows how difficult it is. Yet, we (professionals, the media, society) continue to focus on the individual who is generally living in an environment where kale isn't an everyday option and running shoes only go on at the weekend – or sit looking pristine in the cupboard.

What we need is a change in the system or what is called a 'whole systems approach' to health and lifestyle problems. The most obvious lifestyle related problem is that of obesity. There is a chronic problem of energy imbalance affecting our whole population young, middle-aged and old. We are encouraged to eat less and exercise more but really, the environment doesn't support those changes (for the majority of the population). Will our policy makers have any New Year's resolutions to focus less on the individual and more on the system in which we make our behaviours? With changes such as a sugar levy coming into play, we are seeing food manufacturers reformulate or change product size. But we also hear reports of people stockpiling sugary drinks that are about to be reformulated. Is this the start of a shift away from the individual and to systems thinking? I very much hope so.

Kale and running shoes are not the answer to addressing a health and lifestyle crisis but long term supported and sustainable changes are.


Image: 'Marinated Kale Salad-2' (23204695074_92c53db643_z) by 'jules' via Flickr.com, copyright © 2015: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stone-soup/23204695074

Merry Christmas from Fuse (Fri, 22 Dec 2017 06:00:00 +0000)

We would like to wish all of our readers and contributors a very happy festive season. We will return in the New Year - why not make a resolution to blog in 2018 and send us your posts?


Not addicted but still having an impact: children living with parents who misuse drugs and alcohol (Fri, 15 Dec 2017 06:00:00 +0000)

Guest post by Dr Ruth McGovern, Institute of Health & Society, Newcastle University

There is growing political interest in the misuse of alcohol and drugs by parents and its impact upon children. The newly published Drug Strategy 2017 highlights drug and alcohol dependent parents as a priority group with an estimated 360,000 children living with parents who are dependent upon alcohol or heroin.

As a registered social worker, I have often identified ‘dependent parental substance misuse’ as a risk factor in many ‘child in need’ assessments conducted by Children’s Services. Around half of all child protection cases, recurring care proceedings (repeat children removed and placed into local authority care) and serious case reviews (enquiries following child death or serious injury where neglect or abuse is known or suspected) involve parents who misuse substances. However, the impact of parental substance misuse is not limited to addicts. The number of children living with parents who misuse but aren’t dependent upon alcohol and drugs is likely to be substantially more than the number of children living with those who are addicts. As such, greater harm in the population as a whole is likely to be experienced by these children.

I have been part of a group of academics and clinicians who have recently concluded a rapid evidence review funded by Public Health England (PHE). The review found evidence that parents who misuse, but aren’t dependent on substances, can have a significant impact on the physical, psychological and social health of their child. For instance, in early childhood we found that children of mothers misusing alcohol [1] were twice as likely to suffer a long bone fracture and five times as likely to be accidentally poisoned, than children whose mothers do not drink heavily. Children of mothers misusing alcohol or drugs are also more likely to require outpatient care or to be hospitalised due to injury or illness, and for longer. The impact of substance misuse by parents continues into adolescence, with our review showing an increased likelihood of antisocial, defiant and violent behaviour in late adolescence as well as substance misuse by the child. However, many of these children and families are not identified as being affected by the substance misuse of a parent and subsequently do not receive the help they need in the form of an intervention.

Therefore, our review also examined the evidence for effective interventions to help reduce the numbers of parents misusing alcohol and drugs. Family-level interventions, particularly those that offer intensive case management, or those which provide parents with a clear motivation (such as those linked to care proceedings) show promise in reducing the problem. Unfortunately, there was little research examining the effectiveness of interventions for parents misusing but not dependent on alcohol and drugs.

PAReNTS study logo
To respond to this evidence gap, we designed the PAReNTS study (Promoting Alcohol Reduction in Non Treatment Seeking parents). Within this study we are examining the feasibility and acceptability of alcohol screening (using the AUDIT-C questionnaire [2]) and brief interventions with parents involved in early help and statutory children’s social care services. The brief intervention is an adapted version of the ‘How much is too much?’ programme for parents [3] which combines advice and behaviour change activities and is delivered by both social care practitioners and the local alcohol service. Whilst alcohol brief interventions have been found to be effective in adults who misuse alcohol, little is known about the effectiveness of such interventions for parents with additional and complex needs. This presents unique challenges, for instance, parents may be concerned about the stigma of being labelled as having an alcohol problem, particularly if this could be used as a reason to remove their child from their care. There is clearly a need for a sensitive approach. In future blog posts, I hope to update you on the progress we make with the PAReNTS study and whether it is feasible to deliver early interventions with alcohol misusing parents to improve the wellbeing of children, who are often overlooked in public health.

References:
  1. Below the age of 10 years, much of the evidence focuses on mothers with alcohol misuse problems as most caregiving is carried out by mothers during early years. 
  2. The AUDIT-C is a 3-item alcohol screen that can help identify persons who are hazardous drinkers or have active alcohol use disorders (including alcohol abuse or dependence): https://www.integration.samhsa.gov/images/res/tool_auditc.pdf
  3. This programme was highlighted by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence alcohol prevention guidance (PH24): https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ph24.
Image credits:

Is it possible to have a research career without being a workaholic? (Fri, 08 Dec 2017 06:00:00 +0000)

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Research Manager, Teesside University

This was one of the burning questions that NIHR trainees put to an esteemed panel of career advisers at their annual meeting in Leeds. Every year the National Institute for Health Research brings together their trainees at a two-day event to network, share experiences, take part in workshops and generally learn more about the largest national clinical research funder in Europe. This year’s theme: Future Training for Future Health.



With all these bright minds in the room and a dedicated session on successful fellowships and grant applications, you would think ‘top tips on surviving an interview’ and ‘what mistakes to avoid in an application’ would be on the top of their list. However, after several inspiring presentations from previous and current award holders who had climbed the academic ladder - including Fuse Director Ashley Adamson a NIHR Research Professor - participants were equally, if not more, concerned about maintaining a healthy life-work balance.

Follow the yellow brick road to academic success
While Brexit questions made a brave entrance (Q: How will Brexit affect future research? A: In the long term, not all all!), they could not knock questions about mental health and wellbeing from the top spot. When Ashley included pictures of her son in a musical-inspired animation of her academic pathway (follow the yellow-brick road!) to explain that she preferred part-time work to spend more time with her family, participants immediately asked “but how do you fit family in with an academic career?”.

New gadget SLI.DO was introduced by the NIHR at the meeting this year: participants could submit questions through a mobile app, which others could vote to be answered by the panel (Bush Tucker Trial for academics). Not having to stand up in front of an audience to say who you are, might have given some participants the confidence to ask uncomfortable questions. The honest and open stories from the presenters about their own struggles and failures in academia (“my new post oscillated between agony and despair”) might also have contributed to this confidence.

Paul McGee emphasises the importance of
 looking after your mental health in academia
Experiences of stress and concerns over mental health in academic careers were acknowledged throughout the conference in various presentations and workshops. This was perhaps most evident in the closing session by Paul McGee (aka The Sumo Guy) who emphasises the importance of looking after your mental health in academia. His four key messages (be kind to yourself; get perspective; hippo time - to wallow - is ok; and keep pushing) resonated with many participants and provoked a strong response on social media.

As public health researchers, we are familiar with these messages. In our studies, we underline the link between physical and mental health, express our deep concern over the lack of mental health services and highlight the importance of resilience training from an early age in schools. However, it appears that we are not very good at applying this evidence to our own life and work.

This was recently confirmed by a systematic review of published work on researchers' well-being featured in the Times Higher Education. The review, commissioned by the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust, found that academics face higher mental health risk than many other professions. Lack of job security, limited support from management and weight of work-related demands on time were listed as factors affecting the mental health of those who work in higher education.

Given this evidence, is it possible to have an academic career and stay healthy? Despite the questions raised at the annual event, the NIHR trainees were keen to acknowledge positive mental health messages: you can have a life and family outside academia (no need to be workaholic, although being a data geek is acceptable*); it’s ok to be different and carve your own path to develop your intellectual independence; and most of all: the key to success is self-care and not funding.

* An after-dinner presentation by @StatsJen taught us that there is a perfect correlation between eating cheese and death by entanglement in bedsheets. Will midnight cheese feasts be the next public health scare?

When the Coca-Cola truck comes to your town (Fri, 01 Dec 2017 06:00:00 +0000)

Guest post by Robin Ireland, Director of Research at Food Active and Beth Bradshaw, Project Officer at Food Active.

When Coca-Cola announced their 'Holidays Are Coming' truck tour (ironically coinciding with Sugar Awareness Week), our local media in the North West covered the story like it was the first sign of Christmas, the first cuckoo to be spotted in spring.

And in the run up to the big red shiny sugar-laden truck’s arrival to our towns and cities, from Bolton to Liverpool, Manchester to St Helens, the local newspapers will cover the story in page after page of advertorials, telling you where to get your picture taken posing with Coca-Cola's sugary products and even live blogs in some cases.

In previous years, at no time did the reporters consider that not everyone welcomed the truck in their neighbourhood. Many people are concerned that the truck was marketing Coke to children despite the company's protestations that they do not promote their products to the under twelves. Furthermore, in some locations in the North West the truck was allowed to promote their unhealthy drinks to children and families on Council owned landed. 

To demonstrate our concern, last year Food Active drafted a letter objecting to Coca-Cola's tour coming to the North West which was sent to the national and regional media. No less than 108 people signed in support including the current and past Presidents of the Faculty of Public Health, five Directors of Public Health, Professors, Doctors, educationalists and of course parents. If we are honest, we were shocked that the letter was almost entirely ignored. It would appear that Coca-Cola's commercial clout and public relations campaign counted more than the collective voice of those who are having to address the results of diets regularly fuelled by liquid sugar.

Just before Christmas 2016, Professor John Ashton and I (Robin) were in contact with the British Medical Journal concerning these issues and were invited to submit an editorial which was published in January [1]. In contrast to their previous experience the media attention was huge including coverage in over 60 regional and national newspapers and interviews on various channels including Sky News and Wales Today.

This year, the media attention and discussions around the Coca Cola Christmas Tour has continued. Before the tour was even announced, a news story hit the local press in the North West from Liverpool councillor Richard Kemp CBE (also Deputy Chair of the Community Wellbeing Board at the Local Government Association of England and Wales), who raised concerns about its arrival in Liverpool given the city is ‘in the grip of an obesity epidemic’ – although we know this is not an issue only in Liverpool – the whole country is in the grip on an obesity epidemic. Once the tour was announced, including six visits to the North West, we were pleased to see none were on council-owned land (in 2016 the truck visited Williamson Square in Liverpool which is owned by the Council)

Following this came a cascade of news stories from local and national newspapers and radio stations. This year, Food Active joined up with Sugar Smart to encourage Directors of Public Health, Council Leads and Clinical Commissioning Group Chairs across the country to sign an open letter to Coca-Cola opposing its arrival, given the health harms associated with the consumption of their products and calling for more responsible marketing during the festive period. The North West represented one quarter of the 29 areas, cities and towns who signed the letter. This advocacy may have helped to prompt a response from Public Health England and Public Health Wales – there is a sense that the argument against the Coca-Cola truck are now being taken seriously and media coverage of the 2017 Coca Cola Christmas Tour is not just about when and where you can get your photo taken - but also the health concerns. 
Coca-Cola says that it does not promote its products to the under twelves

Following excellent work by Public Health England, by national organisations including Action on Sugar, the Children's Food Campaign and many others, and of course by Food Active in the North West, we know that we must target sugary drinks as part of a strategy to address the tsunami of obesity, type 2 diabetes and dental disease we face in our poorest and most deprived communities. Moreover, as highlighted in a blog by Dr. Alison Tedstone, Director of Diet and Obesity at Public Health England, the truck will be visiting some of our poorest areas which are often disproportionately burdened with higher levels of obesity [2]. As such, a symbol of ill health should not be welcomed nor celebrated within our communities during a season of good will and cheer. 

However, this is not only about high sugar drinks. Protecting children from junk food marketing has been outlined as the number one priority in tackling obesity by the Obesity Health Alliance (a coalition of over 40 organisations committed to reducing obesity – of whom Food Active is a member). We must not mistake the Coca-Cola truck for anything but a very high profile marketing stunt. We do not allow products high in fat, sugar and salt to be advertised to children on children’s TV programmes, so why is the Coca-Cola truck welcomed into our communities year on year with such open arms? Speaking at the Socialist Health Alliance Public Health Conference, we called for junk food marketing controls to be extended to cover family attractions such as the Coca-Cola truck, as well as sports sponsorship and marketing communications in schools. By allowing the truck into our towns and cities, we are allowing Coca-Cola to exploit the festive period to market their products to the community – and to children in particular.

Our experience shows us that public health has to be persistent in ensuring our messages are heard in the current victim-blaming culture. There is little point in local authorities spending their ever restricted funds on promoting healthier eating and drinking if each Christmas we allow Coca-Cola and others to highjack our messages. There is certainly no excuse for local authorities at to allow this truck on their land and it is the responsibility of public health advocates to continue to make the case to Give Up Loving Pop in 2018. 
  
References:
  1. Ireland, Robin, and John R. Ashton. "Happy corporate holidays from Coca-Cola." (2017): i6833. Available at: http://www.bmj.com/content/356/bmj.i6833
  2. Tedstone, Alison. “An update on sugar reduction”. (2017). Available at: https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk/2017/11/14/sugar-reduction-an-update/


Photo © Oast House Archive (cc-by-sa/2.0)


All views expressed in a post are exclusively those of the author or authors.

‘Afore ye go’… across the border for a cheap pint (Sat, 18 Nov 2017 09:00:00 +0000)

John Mooney, University of Sunderland and Sunderland City Council, asks how Scotland’s minimum unit pricing policy would go down in North East England.


Like many former native Scots now living and working in North East England, the geographical, social and cultural parallels are just three areas of overlap that help keep homesickness for my country of origin at bay!

As a public health researcher some less fortunate similarities are often at the forefront of my mind, including a fondness for deep-fried food, an aversion to fresh vegetables and a damagingly long-ingrained culture of heavy drinking.  This is accompanied by an almost Scottish-scale public health burden to match. It will come as no surprise that as a whole, the North East has among the worst health statistics for alcohol related harm in England [1].

Of course it is also no coincidence that both North East England and much of Scotland’s central belt, particularly Greater Glasgow and Clyde Valley, have some of the most longstanding and concentrated areas of social deprivation and economic disadvantage in the UK. As recent research from Glasgow University has highlighted [2], deprivation and alcohol related health damage, present a particular kind of “double whammy”, even after adjusting for alcohol intake and other lifestyle factors such as smoking.

With these similarities in mind, there is an inescapable logic in looking to Scotland for a steer in terms of policy interventions that might reduce the unacceptably high public health burden due to alcohol in this part of the World. I refer of course to the introduction of a minimum unit price (MUP) of 50p for a unit of alcohol, which on the basis of rigorously evaluated international studies combined with sophisticated cost effectiveness modelling from the Alcohol Research Group at the University of Sheffield [3], is one of the best evidenced policies for reducing alcohol harm in the population.

Scotland is also at the forefront of (what may eventually lead to) a much more ‘fit-for-purpose’ legislative framework around alcohol licensing and availability: namely the inclusion of 'health' as a licensing objective (or ‘HALO’). In principle, this has the potential to transform the capacity of public health teams in English local authorities to make much more use of information on health harms as part of the licensing process. This would ensure that challenges to new licence applications - however potentially damaging the new licence may be - no longer need to be based exclusively on crime and public disorder evidence. To explore whether HALOs could also be used in England, our team at the University of Sunderland looked at the practicalities and logistics of using health information in English licensing decisions. The results have recently been published by Public Health England [4].

So what are the prospects for importing MUP and health objective policies to North East England?

Thankfully, on both policy and research fronts, there are also significant grounds for encouragement in the North East! Indeed, some of the most progressive public health policies around alcohol harm reduction, such as cumulative impact zones and late night levies, are now well established in a number of local authority areas. This has been possible thanks to strong political will and high profile regional level advocacy for alcohol harm reduction policies from Balance North East [5], which is funded collectively across most North East local authorities. Balance NE has already been calling for better controls on cheap alcohol availability in the wake of the Scottish Policy decision [6].

There is also no shortage of public health alcohol research effort in the North East, with a long tradition of internationally renowned research from the Universities of Newcastle, Teesside and most recently our own contributions to several national level evaluations (such as HALO mentioned above).

In brief, there are many regional policy drivers already in place for North East England to emulate Scotland’s very progressive approach to the reduction of alcohol harms. With regard to the often raised criticism that price based measures such as MUP are ‘regressive’ due to a disproportionate financial impact on the poorest, it is difficult to rival the response of Scottish novelist Val McDermid on Thursday's (16 Nov) BBC Question time: “it’s actually about preventing people in our poorest communities drinking themselves to death with cheap alcohol”. It is difficult to figure out what particular definition of the term ‘regressive’ that this conforms to…


References:
  1. Local Alcohol Profiles for England [May 2017]: https://fingertips.phe.org.uk/profile/local-alcohol-profiles/data#page/0
  2. Katikireddi SV, Whitley E, Lewsey J, et al. Socioeconomic status as an effect modifier of alcohol consumption and harm: analysis of linked cohort data. The Lancet Public Health 2017;2(6):e267-e76. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(17)30078-6
  3. Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model:  https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/scharr/sections/ph/research/alpol/research/sapm
  4. Findings from the pilot of the analytical support package for alcohol licensing: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/620478/Alcohol_support_package.pdf
  5. Balance North East: http://www.balancenortheast.co.uk/about-us/
  6. Balance North East news item: http://www.balancenortheast.co.uk/latest-news/balance-calls-on-government-to-follow-scotland-on-mup 
Images:
  1. 'cheap booze, hackney' (3892082333_943f3cc70e_o) by ‘quite peculiar' via Flickr.com, copyright © 2009: https://www.flickr.com/photos/quitepeculiar/3892082333 (cropped)
  2. Courtesy of Alcohol Focus Scotland: https://twitter.com/AlcoholFocus/status/922822671599054848

Public health, social justice, and the role of embedded research (Mon, 13 Nov 2017 06:00:00 +0000)

Posted by Mandy Cheetham, Fuse Post doctoral Research Associate and embedded researcher with Gateshead Council Public Health Team

On this date (13 November) in 1967, Martin Luther King was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Civil Law from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. The speech he gave at the award ceremony is both powerful and moving. It was the last public speech he made outside the US before his assassination in April 1968. You can read it for yourself here or watch it here.


Newcastle was the only UK University to award an honorary degree to Dr King in his lifetime. In accepting the honour, he said “you give me renewed courage and vigour to carry on in the struggle to make peace and justice a reality for all men and women all over the world”. As I listened to the speech, it struck me that the three “urgent and indeed great problems” of racism, poverty and war, which Dr King described in his speech, are just as relevant today as they were then. It made me reflect on our role in universities now and on my role as an embedded researcher in Gateshead Council.

That's me on the left
On Sunday 29 October, I had the privilege of being part of the Freedom City 2017 celebrations held on the Tyne Bridge to mark this significant anniversary, inspire people, and stimulate academic debate about potential solutions. Performances across Newcastle and Gateshead came together to mark different civil rights struggles across the globe, including Selma, Alabama 1965, Amritsar, India 1919, Sharpeville, South Africa 1960, Peterloo, Manchester 1819, and the Jarrow March, Tyneside 1936.

The celebrations were timely, as I am just finishing an embedded research project in Gateshead, undertaken less than a mile from where we stood on the Tyne Bridge. It has been an inspiring year. I’ve learnt a lot, but I have also seen the devastating effects of austerity and poverty on North East families and communities. The research findings demonstrate all too clearly the continuing impact of the social injustices which Martin Luther King talked about fifty years ago.

I believe our role as writers and researchers in public health is not just to highlight the effects of these grave injustices, but to be part of the solutions, developed with the communities affected. If we accept that we are all caught up in what Dr King described as “an inescapable network of mutuality”, then universities have an important part to play in changing attitudes, working with others, facilitating connections, and inspiring efforts to “speed up the day when all over the world justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”. (Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Speech on Receipt of the Honorary Degree, November 13, 1967).

I believe embedded research affords us valuable opportunities, to work alongside local communities with colleagues in public health and voluntary sector organisations, to challenge injustices and push for the kinds of social and political change advocated by Dr King.


Photo credits:
  1. Martin Luther King Honorary Degree Ceremony: http://www.ncl.ac.uk/congregations/honorary/martinlutherking/. Courtesy of Newcastle University.
  2. Photo by Bernadette Hobby of "the judge", representing the establishment, about to receive the Jarrow Marchers petition. The judge was made by Richard Broderick sculptor.
  3. Freedom on the Tyne, The Pageant: http://freedomcity2017.com/freedom-city-2017/freedom-city-tyne/. Courtesy of Newcastle University.

Spice up your research life: match-making in public health (Wed, 08 Nov 2017 06:00:00 +0000)

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Research Manager, Teesside University

Three years ago, we had a crazy idea: what if Fuse had its own dating service for academic researchers and health professionals? Instead of innovative research findings gathering dust on lonely bookshelves, we wanted to provide a stage for academics and health professionals to meet and discuss how that evidence could be used in practice. We were keen to facilitate early conversations on how to collaborate on research that is useful, timely, independent, and easily understood.

Instead of health practitioners wandering around University campuses, trying to find the right academic to work with, we envisioned an open door leading to a welcoming friendly-faced guide. Someone who could do the matchmaking and help them to find or create evidence for spicing up their policies or interventions.

After checking our idea with various health practitioners in the region to make sure that it would make their hearts beat faster, we launched AskFuse in June 2013: Fuse’s very own rapid responsive and evaluation service with a dedicated match-maker (research manager) in post – that’s me!

Coming from an applied research background in social sciences, this post was certainly a challenge but also an incredibility exiting opportunity to develop something new with the support of an enthusiastic group of people across Fuse. The job has been a steep learning curve, but also a great way to meet a lot of people working in public health across the region, getting to understand their passions and … what keeps them up at night.


I quickly learned that there were many great public health projects and programmes being developed and delivered locally that deserved more attention and research (e.g. My Sporting Chance, Ways to Wellness, Boilers on Prescription).  I was encouraged by a real appetite among academics to support this work but felt the frustrations of health professionals caused by budget cuts and the need to decommission services rather than to develop them. I also noticed the limited research evidence informing some of these decision-making processes and the lack of knowledge among academics about how to influence these processes and mobilise their research evidence effectively.

AskFuse has supported more than 270 enquiries from a wide range of sectors, organisations and on topics ranging from Laughter Ball Yoga to Whole Systems Approaches to obesity. We have helped to develop new interventions and evaluated existing ones, made research evidence accessible and understandable, organised events to explore new topics, and pioneered new methodologies; all in collaboration with our policy and practice partners. We have also made mistakes, misunderstood procurement procedures, were not able to help in time, could not find relevant expertise or did not always follow-up on conversations.

Despite these challenges - or perhaps because of them - we have been able to build a dating service that (I think/hope) is perceived as useful by our policy and practice partners, that has helped us to build relationships (even in times of considerable system upheaval with public health moving to local authorities), and has informed new research agendas for Fuse going forward over the next five years as a member of the national School for Public Health Research.

As the service is expanding and my role is changing (I recently became a NIHR Knowledge Mobilisation Research Fellow, which I will talk about in another blog), we are looking for a new AskFuse Research Associate to work with me on strengthening the service and taking it in new directions. If you are interested in mobilising knowledge, fancy a challenge and want to work with a fantastic team, why not be part of it?

Why are veterans reluctant to access help for alcohol problems? (Fri, 03 Nov 2017 06:00:00 +0000)

Guest post by Gill McGill, Senior Research Assistant, Northumbria University

 
With Alcohol Awareness Week fast approaching, the Northern Hub for Military Veterans and Families Research is busy planning a national conference to share findings from a project on improving veterans’ access to help for alcohol problems. The project was funded by the Royal British Legion and arose from two questions frequently posed by clinical practitioners working within the field of alcohol misuse services: 
  1. Why is it so difficult to engage ex-service personnel in treatment programmes?  
  2. Once they engage, why is it so difficult to maintain that engagement? 
     
In an attempt to test these perceptions, we carried out a systematic literature review of the existing evidence.  We then explored the relationship between being a UK military veteran (ex-serviceman/woman) and alcohol misuse services; and veterans’ experiences of engaging with these services. The research study involved interviews with commissioners and managers of services for alcohol misuse, interviews with veterans who are currently experiencing, or had experienced, problems with alcohol misuse, and focus groups with veterans who had no apparent experience of alcohol misuse.
 
The findings will be discussed in detail at the conference, so please join us there to hear more, but that quick plug aside, we thought we’d give you a sneak preview here!
 
Paradoxically, although alcohol misuse amongst UK veterans is estimated to be higher than levels found within the general population, we found a limited amount of research that specifically considered alcohol problems among UK veterans. Given that there are an estimated 2.56 million UK military veterans[1], this represents an important, but as yet, largely unaddressed public health issue.
 
Commissioners and managers of alcohol services expressed the view that veterans have difficulty navigating available support due to ‘institutionalisation’. Yet, when speaking to military veterans themselves, we found no support for this. Such a view point is also potentially problematic in stereotyping veterans as (at least in part) the architects of their own difficulties.
 
In all cases, it could be said that meaningful engagement with alcohol misuse services was being ‘delayed’ to a significant extent by the veterans involved in our study. They ‘normalised’ their relationship with excessive alcohol consumption both during and after military service and this hindered their ability to recognise alcohol misuse. Yet this was not mentioned by healthcare staff participating in the study. Participants also suggested that seeking help was contrary to ‘military culture’ and that this frame of mind tended to remain with UK military veterans after transition to civilian life. Delay in seeking help often meant that by the point at which help was sought, the problems were of such complexity and proportion that they were difficult to address.

Service commissioners/managers and military veterans highlighted a need for greater understanding of ‘veterans’ culture’ and the specific issues veterans face among ‘front line’ staff dealing with substance and alcohol misuse.
 
As a result of the research, one possible solution identified as worthy of further exploration is a ‘hub-and-spoke’ model of care. At the centre of the hub would be a military veteran peer support worker, with knowledge of local and national services, and experience in navigating existing pathways of care. This solution perhaps offers one way in which UK military veterans experiencing alcohol misuse problems might engage with the full range of existing services in a considered and individually bespoke way.
 
Reference:
  1. Ministry of Defence (2015) Annual Population Survey: UK Armed Forces Veterans residing in Great Britain 2015. Bristol: Ministry of Defence Statistics (Health).

National Conference – Northumbria University and Royal British Legion
Veterans Substance Misuse: Breaking Down Barriers to Integration of Health and Social Care
Newcastle United Football Club (Heroes Suite)
Thursday 16 November
More information on the Fuse website.

The myth of a dangerous ‘underclass’: a real horror story for Hallowe’en (Fri, 27 Oct 2017 05:00:00 +0000)

Guest post by Stephen Crossley, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University


With Hallowe’en nearly upon us, many parents will be telling their children tales of ghouls and ghosts that can be found in haunted houses. Adults will entertain themselves by watching horror movies and other productions where other-worldly creatures and monsters intrude upon peaceful and civilised spaces to threaten the status quo and the existing order of things. Most of us know that ghosts, spirits, and the like are the stuff of legend and lore and tend not to believe the mythology associated with them. But many people in contemporary society do believe in myths about groups of people that are different to the rest of ‘us’, who exhibit different social norms and values to the mainstream population, and who invoke fear and dread in many of us. Many people watch the behaviour of ‘the underclass’,[1] in the name of entertainment, with a mixture of fear, horror, fascination, and contempt. The ‘underclass’, it is believed, can be found in certain locations. There is a long history to such beliefs.

William Hogarth's depiction of London vice, Gin Lane.
In Victorian times, the middle and upper classes of London spent a great deal of time going ‘slumming’, visiting poorer parts of the East End for various reasons, including their amusement and titillation, and for philanthropic and journalistic purposes.[2] In 1883, George Sims, an English poet, journalist, dramatist and novelist, began his book How the Poor Live by inviting the reader to go a journey with him, not across oceans or land, but ‘into a region which lies at our own doors – into a dark continent that is within easy walking distance of the General Post Office’.[3] Sims hoped that this continent would be:
As interesting as any of those newly-explored lands which engage the attention of the Royal Geographic Society – the wild races who inhabit it will, I trust, gain public sympathy as easily as those savage tribes for whose benefit the Missionary Societies never cease to appeal for funds.
William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army argued in 1890 that certain areas of London were like parts of Africa that had just been discovered by explorers such as Henry Morton Stanley Africa, and were similarly full of primitives and savages. In 1977, the sociologist E.V. Walter noted that, whilst such beliefs had changed somewhat, traces of them remained:
In all parts of the world, some urban spaces are identified totally with danger, pain and chaos. The idea of dreadful space is probably as old as settled societies, and anyone familiar with the records of human fantasy, literary or clinical, will not dispute a suggestion that the recesses of the mind conceal primeval feelings that respond with ease to the message: ‘Beware that place: untold evils lurk behind the walls’. Cursed ground, forbidden forests, haunted houses are still universally recognised symbols, but after secularisation and urbanisation, the public expression of magical thinking limits the experience of menacing space to physical and emotional dangers.[4]
Indeed, in recent times, the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Ian Duncan Smith argued that the television programme Benefits Street offered the middle classes a window into the ‘twilight world’ of neighbourhoods where many people received financial support from the state.[5] The ‘twilight world’ of welfare dependency that Duncan Smith refers to elicits feelings of mystery, anxiety, and the unfamiliar, feelings of nervous excitement that the original social explorers must have felt in the late nineteenth century or what middle class travellers of today might experience whilst ‘doing the slum’ on foreign holidays.

Whilst the words have changed slightly, the myth of a dangerous ‘underclass’ who dwell in ‘dreadful enclosures’ or ‘sink estates’, and who represent a threat to wider society remains. If we want a real horror story for Hallowe’en, we need look no further than how large sections of society view a mythical ‘underclass’ and how they view the places associated with impoverished communities.

Dr Stephen Crossley is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University. His first book In Their Place: The Imagined Geographies of Poverty is out now with Pluto Press. He tweets at @akindoftrouble


References:
  1. John Welshman, Underclass: A History of the Excluded Since 1880 (2nd edition), London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
  2. Seth Koven, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2004.
  3. George Sims, How the poor live, London: Chatto & Windus, 1883, p1.
  4. E.V. Walter, Dreadful Enclosures: Detoxifying and Urban Myth, European Journal of Sociology, Vol. 18, No. 1 (1977), p 154. 
  5. BBC News online, Benefits Street reaction shows poor 'ghettoised', says Duncan Smith, 23 January 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-25866259 [Accessed 27 November 2016] 
Images:
  1. William Hogarth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  2. Generations' (8690911868_23ce2c05a0_z) by ‘Byzantine_K’ via Flickr.com, copyright © 2013: https://www.flickr.com/photos/november5/8690911868

Monopoly money, pitching to the converted, and sending Mr Grumpy away happy: doing home and healthy ageing research differently (Fri, 20 Oct 2017 05:00:00 +0000)

Dr Philip Hodgson, Senior Research Assistant, Northumbria University



Endings are rubbish, right?  Whether it be a great novel, play, film, TV series – there’s always that feeling that no matter how things are pulled together, it will never be as good as you have pictured in your imagination.  And then, you know, it just ends…

It was perhaps with this in mind that we decided to take a different approach in the last of our four workshops on home and healthy ageing.  Rather than guest speakers being invited to share their knowledge and prompt discussion, the project team attempted to summarise and pitch their ideas for future research back to the group (think Dragons’ Den).  This proved to be challenging, as the previous sessions had been so rich that even synthesising them into brief slides was difficult, never mind placing them in a strategic context for the participants to critique and reflect upon.  Yet, three key themes were identified.  These were in addition to the concept of a ‘home’ being more than just bricks and mortar but personal/psychological, physical and social/environment space(s) – an idea that we used as a starting block in week one and illustrated below.

More than just bricks and mortar
'Home' illustration used in the seminars 
The key themes were:
  • Policies and contexts: not only a tension between housing and health policies, but also the need to consider market and narrative factors influencing housing and health decisions;
  • The life course approach: the need to think about housing as an individual pathway, in which preventative measures and services are considered before crisis point;
  • Transitions and soft services: the need for support to be available as and when people experience key housing and life changes, such as reduced physical health, retirement, or the loss of support networks and being able to navigate different services on offer.
However, this is where we’d like to leave you with a cliff hanger: rather than going through each of themes in-depth (fans of this series will have to wait for our spin off…  er, research papers for that!), we’d instead like to reflect on our process at this stage.  These sessions took a slightly different approach as, rather than being a series of open seminars with presentations that people could dip in and out of, we invited several key individuals to attend each session in turn.  The reasons for this were many, but primarily we wanted to ensure that a diverse range of backgrounds were represented throughout (housing providers, architects, academics, local authority workers, homelessness workers, etc.) to go on a learning journey with us as a research team.  This meant that by the time we reached the final session, there was enough of a shared understanding that we could make the most of the group’s commitment to the project – we would be actually able to start to pin down quite complex concepts, practical issues and, hopefully, future projects.

We tried out different formats to structure the discussions: from world cafés, to games (with Monopoly money!) with researchers pitching ideas to mock panels, which worked to various degrees but always ensured a lively debate.

Do not pass Go. Do not collect £200
Pitching ideas with Monopoly money 
There were, of course, some difficulties.  As I’m sure everyone reading this will know, it is a lot to ask of a practitioner to take one morning out of their schedule, let alone for four seminars.  As a result, engagement had to remain a constant focus and I spent much time nervously lingering by the registration desk hoping for just a few more name badges to disappear before we started!  It was also a challenge in terms of managing the conversations during the sessions: you want all voices to be heard in such a diverse group but we all needed to be pulling in the same direction by the end.

Yet, by the final session, the rewards were immense.  Not only were we able to pitch ideas to a group who had already undergone some of the same learning as us, but this gave everybody the confidence to relate the complex theoretical issues to their own practice (allowing us to capture the breadth of what was possible).  It allowed us to discuss concrete projects, and leave the session with a sense of trust that networks were in place to actually deliver on them.  Perhaps most importantly we found that, what started as a broad idea, was something of relevance across the housing and health sectors.  Even the grumpiest of the project group (naming no names) left the day with a spring in their step.  For that alone, everyone who attended deserves some massive thanks…

So, who needs endings, when we can all just sign up to the sequel?

To be continued…



Photo 2: By James Petts from London, England (Monopoly) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

From shock to the system, to system map and beyond: evaluating the UK sugary drinks tax (Fri, 13 Oct 2017 05:00:00 +0000)

Guest post by Jean Adams, Centre for Diet & Activity Research (CEDAR), University of Cambridge

Mostly you don’t get to watch TV at work. The day that George Osborne announced he would introduce a tax on sugary drinks in the UK, here at CEDAR HQ we all stood huddled around a computer monitor watching and re-watching the words coming out of his mouth. 

Oh. My. Goodness. I did not see that coming. 

The “soft drinks industry levy”, to give it it’s proper name.

A rather senior professor has since told me that he totally saw it coming.

After we’d got over the shock of the announcement, the conversation turned pretty quickly to research (well, this is a university, after all). We have got to evaluate this!

Colleagues at CEDAR had already written papers about how sugary drink taxes could be evaluated. We had talked with colleagues in other countries about evaluating their taxes – only for those taxes to fall through at the final political hurdle. I have more than one half-written application for research funds to evaluate sugary drink taxes stashed down the back of my computer.

And here it was, all systems go for designing an evaluation for a UK sugary drinks tax! In our back yard!

OK, so we have to work out whether it impacts on diet. But, what about jobs? Will people lose their jobs? Surely we need to know if it changes price and purchasing of sugary drinks. Right, but even if it does people might just shift to other foods – maybe they will just eat more cake instead? We are Public Health researchers, we need to focus on health: does the tax change how many people get diabetes? Or tooth decay? Or the number of obese children? And what about how this even happened? Did you see it coming? Why has this happened? Why now? Why don’t we do interviews with politicians and find out how it happened?

Woah, woah, woah! Ten seconds in and this is getting way more complicated than we (I) had ever thought it might. Before we did anything, we needed to work out what we thought might be going on here. Once we understood what the potential impacts might be, then we could start thinking about how we might evaluate them.

So that’s what we did. We spent 6 months developing a ‘systems map’ of the potential health-related impacts of the UK Soft Drinks Industry Levy (aka sugary drinks tax). The tax is explicitly designed to encourage soft drinks’ manufacturers to take sugar out of their drinks. There are two levels – a higher tax for drinks with the most sugar, a lower one for only moderately sugary drinks. So we started there (at ‘reformulation’) and worked out.

Then we sense-checked our map with people working in government, charities, and the soft drinks industry. They made lots of suggestions for things we’d missed, or needed to clarify. We changed our map and asked people to check it again. We changed it again. Only then did we decide what we should, and could, evaluate.

The current version of our systems map (we still think of it as a work in progress). Larger version here.







Yes, we are going to look at how the price of sugary drinks changes over the next few years. But we are also going to look at the amount of sugar in soft drinks in UK supermarkets, and the range of drinks available. We’re going to use commercial data to look at purchasing of soft drinks, as well as other sugary foods. We’ll use the National Diet & Nutrition Survey to explore whether there are any changes in how many sugary drinks, and other sweet foods, people in the UK eat. We’ll use hospital data to see if the number of children admitted with severe dental decay decreases. We’ll use statistical modelling to predict how changes in how many soft drinks people drink might translate into cases of diabetes and heart disease. We’ll look at the impact of the tax on jobs, and the economy. We’ll explore the ‘political processes’ of why and how this tax happened at this time. And we’ll conduct surveys to find out what people in the UK think of sugar, sugary drinks, and the tax itself – and whether this changes over time.

Obviously it’s going to be a lot of work. We’re going to need some excellent people to join the team to help us actually do this thing. Personally, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed/excited/overwhelmed/excited. It’s going to be brilliant!

Wanna be part of it?

Looking for trouble: deceit and duplicity in the Troubled Families Programme (Fri, 06 Oct 2017 05:00:00 +0000)

Introduced by Peter van der Graaf


Guest post by Stephen Crossley, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University

Many families facing health problems, limiting illnesses, or with disabled family members have been labelled as ‘troubled families’ under the government’s Troubled Families Programme. Originally established following the 2011 riots to ‘turn around’ the lives of 120,000 allegedly anti-social and criminal families, the programme is now in its second phase and is working with a far larger group of families, many of whom experience troubles, but don’t necessarily cause trouble. In April of this year, the focus of the programme shifted again in an attempt to improve the number of so-called ‘troubled families’ who moved back into employment, despite the majority of them being in work and many of the remainder not being expected to be looking or available for work.

The programme has been dogged by controversy from day one. Research about families experiencing multiple disadvantages was misrepresented at the launch of the programme to provide ‘evidence’ that there were 120,000 troublesome families in England. The government has since been accused of suppressing the official evaluation of the first phase of the programme after it found ‘no discernible impact’ of the programme and also of ‘over-claiming’ the 99% success rate of the first phase. 

David Cameron with Louise Casey, former Director General of Troubled Families

Many health workers will be involved with the delivery of the Troubled Families Programme in their day-to-day work, although there is also a good chance that they will not be aware of it. Many local authorities do not refer to their local work as ‘troubled families’ because of the stigmatising rhetoric and imagery associated with it. Many families are not aware that they have been labelled as ‘troubled families’ for the same reason, and because it would undoubtedly hinder engagement with the programme. They are not always made aware that the data that is collected on them as part of the programme, is shared with other local agencies and, in an anonymised format, with central government.

My PhD research, conducted in three different local authority areas, found that the programme was based on, and relied upon duplicity from design to implementation. Despite government narratives about the programme attempting to ‘turn around’ the lives of ‘troubled families’, the programme appeared to be more concerned with helping to restructure what support to disadvantaged families looks like, and reducing the cost of such families to the state.

For example, support – both symbolic and financial - for universal services, such as libraries, children’s centres and youth projects, is reducing. Direct financial support to marginalised groups is also being cut, with welfare reforms hitting many of the most disadvantaged groups hardest. These forms of support, and many other more specialist services, are being replaced, rhetorically at least, by an intensive form of ‘family intervention’ which allegedly sees a single key worker capable of working with all members of the family, able to ‘turn around’ their lives no matter what problems, health-related or otherwise, they may be facing or causing.

The simplistic central government narrative of the almost perfect implementation of the Troubled Families Programme was not to be found ‘on the ground’, where there were multiple frustrations and concerns about the depiction of the families and the programme, and numerous departures from the official version of events. Despite the rhetoric of ‘turning around’ the lives of ‘troubled families’, in the face of cuts in support and benefits to families, my PhD thesis concluded that the Troubled Families Programme does little more than intervene to help struggling families to cope with their poverty better, despite the efforts of local practitioners.

Put simply, the programme does not attempt to address the structural issues that cause many of the problems faced by ‘troubled families’, but instead encourages them to ‘learn to be poor’. In my previous Fuse blog, I drew on the concept of ‘lifestyle drift’ advanced by David Hunter and Jenny Popay: where the focus of interventions drifts towards attempting to change individual behaviour, despite the wealth of evidence pointing to other solutions. There is no room in the narrative for wider determinants of people’s circumstances. Because of this, the government’s Troubled Families Programme will do little to turn around the lives and health of the families it claims to help.


A summary of Stephen Crossley’s PhD research can be found here. His first book In Their Place: The Imagined Geographies of Poverty is out now with Pluto Press. He tweets at @akindoftrouble


Photograph ‘Almost 40,000 troubled families helped’ (14087270645_3453006d12_c) by ‘Number 10’ via Flickr.com, copyright © 2014: https://www.flickr.com/photos/number10gov/14087270645

Brands, bottles and breastfeeding: sharing stories of early motherhood (Fri, 29 Sep 2017 05:00:00 +0000)


Introduced by Nat Forster


Guest post by Justine Gallagher, Lecturer at Northumbria University

My own story of infant feeding is based in a community where breastfeeding was, and still is, not the norm. I was the first in my immediate family to breastfeed and I struggled with it in various ways. My breastfeeding journey ended much sooner than I had originally planned, when my son was just six weeks old. Two years later, my own sheer determination helped me to feed my second child, a daughter, for nine months.

Justine's first steps into motherhood
Later, in a professional capacity, I worked supporting families in my role as Community Development Worker in Sure Start Children's Centres. I worked with mothers who had similar feeding stories to my own, as well as many women who had never breastfed. They, like most of the people around me, never had any intention to breastfeed.

The guilt I felt for breastfeeding my first child for a short time stayed with me for a long time. I did not understand why it had such an impact. Why did I feel the need to breastfeed when others around me did not appear to give breastfeeding a second thought? When the opportunity came for me to undertake PhD research, my choice of topic was never in doubt.

My research, which is supervised by Dr Deborah James from Northumbria University, is focused on the infant feeding stories of nine women who live in an area where breastfeeding rates are low. All of the women’s stories are equally important however, for the purposes of this blog I would like to introduce you to Claire (names have been changed to preserve anonymity), who formula fed her baby Sophia from birth.

Claire, her parents and grandparents have lived in the same local area all of their lives. Claire was a single parent and lived with Sophia’s grandparents when her daughter was first born. Sophia’s grandmother took an active part in her care. She looked after Sophia for two nights a week when she was first born, reducing this to just one night per week as time passed. Following a biographical narrative approach, which allows participants to tell their stories without interruption, I asked Claire for her story with the use of a single question;

"So, please can you tell me the story of your experiences of feeding milk to your baby?"
"Well I started when I was pregnant, erm, I’ve always wanted to bottle feed her er, cause there was pink bottles that I wanted to get her erm and also knew the milk that I wanted to put on her erm, and just bottle feeding become very easy to us."

Claire’s story was dominated with discussion of branding and consumer goods. The pink bottles and the various brands of infant formula Claire gave to Sophia reveal the way media and advertising can influence infant feeding practice. Claire demonstrates that she was careful with her bottle-feeding choices. These choices were not arbitrary; she made clear decisions between brands and bottles. Claire wanted me to know that she had made the right choices for her and her daughter.

It was also quite clear that Claire’s identity, as the mother of a daughter, was an important part of her story. The ‘pink’ bottles represent this in a very visible way, she could perform her identity as a mother of a daughter with the right choice of bottle. Claire’s relationship with her own mother was important to her and she appeared keen to demonstrate that this mother-daughter bond would continue for another generation.

These stories help us to understand why some women breastfeed and others do not. Upon reflection, for me, I feel that breastfeeding was about being the best mother I could be, which explains the guilt I felt when I stopped. For Claire, feeding her baby was also about the same thing, only for Claire, being a good mother was about making the right consumption choices. In my thesis, I expand on how Claire’s choices were based on the social norms, the unwritten rules of how to be a mother, in the culture around her.

Systems map
‘systems map’ of the potential health-related impacts of the UK Soft Drinks Industry Levy