Friday, 27 January 2017

The first step to an equal North

Guest post Professor Paul Johnstone, Regional Director, Public Health England, North of England

The inaugural meeting of the North of England’s research and practitioner network to address health and social inequalities, hosted by Fuse in Newcastle, was an inspiring beginning. Over 350 people have signed up to ‘Equal North’, including most universities and local practitioners. Judging by the energy and ideas in the room this is going to be an interesting and important development and journey.

EQUAL North: how can we reduce health inequalities in the North?

We heard from Professor Dame Margaret Whitehead (pictured left) who chaired the original ‘Due North’ inquiry on health inequality in the north in 2014. Due North had flagged health in all policies as a potential lever and her recent work with the House of Commons All Parliamentary Party Group on Health in All Policies was particularly impressive.

Professor Peter Kelly (right), Director for the North
East Public Health England (PHE) Centre reflected on earlier work by primary care trusts and the health authority from which to draw important lessons.

And I (pictured left) described some of what has happened since Due North was published. In preparing my slides I wanted to go back and look myself at earlier work from Yorkshire and Humber days when we measured health inequalities in life expectancy, a government target 10 years ago.

What I found was striking: affluent areas, such as York, North Yorkshire and East Riding which had life expectancies above the England average five years ago (78.6 years for men / 82.6 years for women) improved still further to the national trend (which has increased by an average of 0.4 years over five years). Lowest for life expectancy - such as Hull for men and Doncaster, Wakefield and Barnsley for women - made no improvement at all. The increasing gap is the challenge; whether we look at health, education, or the economy. In a highly-centralised country like England such inequalities are hardwired into the fabric of the country from infrastructure investment to schools.

The seismic shifts following the Brexit vote could change all of this. Theresa May said on the steps of Downing Street that she wants to address the injustice of inequality and the ‘nine year gap’, referring to recent PHE published data on life expectancy. The new Industrial Strategy, launched on 22 January at a regional Cabinet held in an innovation park in Warrington; the RSA* Inclusive Growth Commission; and the early outputs from the National Infrastructure Commission and the Children’s Commissioner for England’s Growing Up North, again address what is needed.

It is in this context of widening inequality, with new national resolve to address it, that we launched Equal North. As a network of researchers and practitioners across the north this gives us a tremendous opportunity to influence policy:
  • What can we learn from earlier government inequalities polices, from the days of spearheads, for example?
  • How best do we translate complex data on inequalities into simple local actions and how best to influence local devolution deals for elected mayors and local politicians?
This needs to put communities and individuals at the heart of the action, not graphs and charts. I said earlier that this could be an interesting and important journey. Together we made the first step in Newcastle.

For more information about this Fuse Quarterly Research Meeting please visit the event page on the Fuse website.  The presentations from the event will be available soon.

*Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce

Friday, 20 January 2017

An education in how research influences parliament, policy & practice

Guest post by Charlotte Kitchen, PhD student, Mental Health Research Centre, Durham University

It seems fitting that my first post for the Fuse Open Science Blog is about my time in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST).

I have just returned from a three-month secondment from my PhD; this meant relocating from Durham University’s Queens Campus to POST's Westminster Offices in London. As you can imagine this was a bit of a culture shock for a country girl but it was also an amazing opportunity that I would definitely recommend to others. POST is Parliament’s in-house source of independent, balanced and accessible analysis of public policy issues from across the biological, physical and social sciences, as well as engineering and technology topic areas. POST is responsible for producing briefings (usually four page summaries of a topic) for MPs and Peers in order to place the findings of academic research on these topics into a policy context for Parliamentary use. The main mechanism for achieving this is the recruitment of POST fellows (that's me!) who are PhD students who undertake short placements with the objective of producing a briefing on a topic area of interest to Parliament.

The Parliamentary Archives
Big Ben (Elizabeth Tower) at Christmas

I was tasked with preparing a ‘POSTbrief’ on ‘selective education’ which was a responsive policy briefing based on a mini literature review. This was in reaction to the current debate on the issue and the government consultation on grammar schools, which closed in December 2016. I was required to research and write the brief, interview a range of leading academics and stakeholders, attend debates in the Houses of Commons and Lords as well as liaising with the House of Commons Education Select Committee. My PhD is in adolescent mental health so the prospect of working in a new topic area was daunting but it turned out to be a challenging and rewarding experience that has definitely improved my confidence, ability to articulate complex information and writing skills.

Whilst working at POST, I was asked to support the House of Commons Education Select Committee during the Autumn 2016 term - a lot more interesting than it sounds! I got to meet various MPs, attend a committee meeting where I was asked to brief the committee on the topic and had the opportunity to feed directly into the everyday work of Parliament. The enquiry the Committee was undertaking on the topic will report shortly. My work at POST culminated in the publication of an open-access parliamentary briefing 'Academic Evidence on Selective Secondary Education' which was circulated to MPs on the Education Select Committee and others with an interest in the area. I also had the opportunity to undertake some speech writing for an MP (under supervision, of course) just to keep things interesting!

Mr Speaker selfie
The take home message of my blog is don’t be afraid to apply for a POST fellowship - like I was! Before I applied, people said they were too competitive and it wasn’t a good idea to take time off during your PhD but three months away from your thesis is a small price to pay for the experiences I have had in the Houses of Parliament. Where else do you work where there is not one or two, but three gift shops!? One of the more surreal highlights had to be a selfie with the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, the Speaker of the House of Commons whilst attending a Christmas Carol Service. In all seriousness, this fellowship has added a parliamentary publication to my CV, provided me with much needed policy experience, opened my eyes to how research influences parliament, policy and subsequently practice. I learnt many of the practical ways you can get your research noticed: from keeping an up to date academic biography and profile, publishing open-access so non-academic institutions can access your work, producing blogs to make your work more accessible to non-specialists and utilising social media to publicise your research.

The whole experience at POST is one I will not forget in a hurry and it was made possible through funding from the British Psychological Society; the closing date for this year’s fellowship scheme is 31 August 2017. There are other funders who have different deadlines throughout the year such as research councils, societies and charities. For more established academics there are also opportunities to work more closely with parliament that are worth considering.

And finally, the obligatory tourist shot...

Me and my mum

Friday, 13 January 2017

A prescription for tackling riskier drinking?

Guest post by John Mooney, Fuse associate and Senior Lecturer in Public Health, University of Sunderland.

In keeping with the ‘Dry-January’ season, John Mooney reflects on a current initiative to assess the feasibility of alcohol brief interventions in high street pharmacies…

“A man walks into a high street chemist – and asks for a paracetamol and an Alka-Seltzer…” could be the start of a very unpromising joke or sketch outline… Thankfully, it’s neither, as it more accurately depicts a very common scenario, which might represent the basis of a potentially effective setting (namely pharmacy / high street chemist shops) for health promotion messages around the health risks from alcohol misuse and / or overconsumption.

AUDIT score card collection box, with prize incentive to participate
Alcohol unit indicator diagram

Unsurprisingly perhaps, it is by now fairly well established that “alcohol brief interventions” (ABIs) - in which short well-validated questionnaires about habitual drinking patterns and consequences are linked to tailored advice and feedback - can be an effective intervention in primary care based consultations / GP practices as evidenced in the SIPS trial. Evidence for the effectiveness of such interventions however is less convincing in other settings, even those where, as in a GP consultation, health is the primary focus of the interaction. Pharmacy outlets for example might be considered an obvious parallel candidate ‘setting’ where, as in the scenario above, there may clearly have been an alcohol related context surrounding the primary reason for the person’s visit.

Indeed, in addition to over-the-counter ‘remedies’ which might be sought out after alcohol over-indulgence, there are a number of ‘indicator-prescriptions’ which could be suggestive of a more chronic / long-term damaging level of alcohol consumption (such as stomach acid suppressants or high blood pressure medications). High street chemists therefore, by virtue of their community embedded location, specialist knowledge and windows of opportunity for engagement, could theoretically present a very promising setting for ABIs. The lack of evidence of effectiveness in studies where this has been rigorously evaluated, has prompted questions as to why this might be the case. Investigators have speculated on the explanation being attributable to anything from the variable attitudes of pharmacy staff to the additional time and resource constraints associated with modern pharmacy practice. A recent Master of Pharmacy dissertation at the University of Sunderland(1) – which explored possible reasons in interviews with pharmacy staff, provided some local corroboration for these potential explanations. Interviews with participating pilot sites had also however noted the value of the awareness raising aspect of the process:

“Some patients had been drinking a bottle of wine a night and didn’t realise that it could contain 9-10 units and they were really shocked when they realised”

Other potential strengths of pharmacies as a setting for ABIs might be the now well established practice of providing support to pharmacies looking to embrace a wider health promotion role. As part of NHS England’s current ‘Promotion of Healthy Lifestyles’ programme, pharmacies are now required to participate in up to six health promotion campaigns per year(2). This generally involves the display and distribution of leaflets provided by NHS England or other collaborating institutions or stakeholders. As a result, there are usually highly visible and engaging ‘health promoting and awareness raising materials’ adorning the display areas of high street pharmacies and messages around alcohol health risks and reducing them are often a focus of such displays.

Given that the brief questionnaires and tailored advice of alcohol brief interventions is a more pro-active approach than the passive display of information, a current UK pilot feasibility study for pharmacies in several UK regions funded by Drinkaware UK, involves participants self-completing a score card that is the basis of most ABI interventions. Abbreviated as AUDIT, the Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test, developed by the World Health Organisation(3), involves a series of questions about drinking habits and the extent to which drinking might have impacted on daily activities. Not quite ‘shock tactics’, the revelation of a score that flags up concern – can give respondents some cause for reflection – especially after the season of excess! Of course the score cards themselves have information on where respondents can seek further help and participating outlets receive training in responding to questions that might arise. Essentially the pilot aims to examine how best to integrate ABIs, as unobtrusively as possible into the day-to-day working of the pharmacy.

Not a programme lacking in ambition, the same score cards are also being distributed by trained advisors in selected participating supermarkets and other community settings across the UK, the evaluation of which is set to be complex and challenging. Ultimately the organisers hope to be able to make best practice recommendations about the most effective way to implement ABIs in pharmacies and other settings, where traditionally ‘hard to reach groups’ including working age men (a key high risk group for developing alcohol related health problems) can be more easily targeted.

AUDIT score cards with information leaflets
Indeed the current Drinkaware national campaign (‘Have a little less’) of which the above initiative is a part, will be run to coincide with 'Dry-January'. With a particular focus on working age men aged between 45-60, the message is that ‘Having a little less’ alcohol can have significant health benefits. This is in line with an emerging expert consensus around some of the potential drawbacks of an over-emphasis on one month of the year(4) and that it would be more beneficial for example to achieve three drinking free days for every week of the year. With long term trends in UK consumption still on the rise and a 44 per cent increase since 2009 in those aged 50 and over accessing alcohol treatment, all initiatives exploring innovative ways of getting the message across are to be welcomed. Don’t be too surprised therefore if you are asked about alcohol consumption the next time you collect a prescription!

Note: The Sunderland University Team who are evaluating the Drinkaware community ABI pilot comprises: Prof Jonathan Ling, Mr John Mooney (PI), Dr Zeibeda Sattar and Dr Nicola Hall. Please address any correspondence to

  1. Asghar S. Assessing the Feasibility and Practicality of delivering Alcohol Brief Interventions in Pharmacy Settings. MPharm Dissertation, University of Sunderland 2015/16.
  2. PSNC page on promoting healthy lifestyles: 
  3. PHE Guide to WHO AUDIT: 
Photography by Eileen Robinson Art ©

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Engaging ‘harder-to-reach’ service users - Food as a Lifestyle Motivator

Guest post by Dr Clare Pettinger, Registered Dietitian, Registered Nutritionist (Public Health) and Lecturer in Public Health Dietetics, Plymouth University

My research (the Food as a Lifestyle Motivator (FLM) project) has explored the use of creative methods to engage with homeless individuals in discussions about their wellbeing. The project demonstrates that food, as well as being central to many health concerns, may also be a powerful ‘lifestyle motivator’ for those on the edges of society. During the project, powerful visual and narrative food themed data have been generated that provided a ‘voice’ for homeless individuals, challenging traditional research paradigms and identifying innovative approaches for engaging and empowering community groups that are traditionally ‘harder-to-reach’.

FLM was based on local evaluation work showing that, by engaging in food projects, unemployed and homeless individuals showed improvements in eating, self-esteem, and social skills (Pettinger and Whitelaw, 2012)1. I saw, first hand, socially excluded individuals being so moved and empowered by food activities that something really shifted in them. This was a ‘light bulb’ moment for me in my (early) research career!

The stark realities of extreme poverty (homelessness) are well documented, including food-related chronic/acute health problems and drug/alcohol addictions. Such transient communities have multiple and complex needs that present challenges for researchers, therefore, a democratic and creative approach can be beneficial.

The FLM pilot used ‘Photo-Elicitation’, which involved participants being issued with disposable cameras, given brief instructions on their use, then taking photos of their food activities over a ten-day period. Photos were then developed and focus groups run for them to discuss their images. In this context, the photograph is seen as a neutral third party (Schulze, 2007)2 and particularly useful when discussing issues with ‘vulnerable’ people (Liamputtong, 2009)3. Our findings illustrate how self-captured food photos (see selected examples) can both facilitate the process of food research itself, but also generate important ‘in-roads’ for lifestyle and wellbeing enhancements. Our small sample of nine homeless service users provided powerful narratives, showing that for them, food holds meaning, elicits emotion and exerts power; and that the food environment can be a critical social place: food preparation can provide companionship and occupation. Thus revealing the highly individualised perspectives of those who are doing the best they can in light of multiple deprivations.

"…I can’t eat in the dining room, because I am scared of crowds and large groups of people…" (Nemo)
"Food has become a major part of my life. I really enjoy cooking actually it beat the demons in my head……look how far I have come…" (Ross)
These creative methods have had their challenges. As an evidence based practitioner, I am trained to assess the hierarchy of evidence to ensure rigour and transferability of research design. Yet such highly structured and often sterile/impersonal research designs are far from appealing to the participant group I am interested in. With public engagement currently a key priority for research impact, the need to make methods more accessible to participants is crucial. Understanding the diversity of ‘harder-to-reach’ community groups, giving them a ‘seat at the table’ and listening to their voices is crucial to their engagement.

With hunger a topic of national debate, there is an urgent need to consider how to engage better with socially excluded individuals and communities. Creative approaches, such as Photo Elicitation, offer great potential and as such should be endorsed by public health directorates across the country.

This project has gained a lot of local (and regional) interest because it ‘ticks the box’ for innovative commissioning practices. Not only can this approach be used as a means to enhance health and wellbeing in a diverse range of service users, it can also be used for public consultation on service (re)design. Other than publishing the work (currently underway), current FLM data collection with service providers across the city is mapping food related assets and using ‘appreciative inquiry’ interviews to establish key priorities. Thus aiming for these approaches to be embedded into the local inequalities strategy, to inform food/nutrition policies - recommending the use of participatory socially inclusive food activities as part of service provision.

"Getting involved in food can be a starting point to address other things that are ‘broken’ and lead to progress in other ways" (quote from homeless shelter keyworker). Creative food methods can offer meaningful occupation, thus generating a virtuous circle where food promotes engagement and engagement promotes interest in self-care. Food, therefore, becomes an expression of empowerment, with the potential to enhance health, wellbeing and social justice.

  1. Pettinger C and Whitelaw E (2012) Food Cultures: Growing, cooking, eating: “An exploration of improving food practices in young men and older adults in Plymouth” Report written for DH funded project. Unpublished - available at 
  2. Schulze, S (2007) The usefulness of reflexive photography for qualitative research: a case study in higher education. South African Journal of Higher Education 21 (5) 536-553
  3. Liamputtong P (2009) Researching the vulnerable. A guide to sensitive research methods. London Sage. p112