Tuesday, 4 July 2017

What does a hung parliament hold for the future of Public Health?

Posted by Fuse Senior Investigator David J Hunter, Professor of Health Policy and Management & Director, Centre for Public Policy and Health, Durham University

The June general election threw a lot of things up in the air but resolved little. We are living in a suspended state awaiting resolution of what is clearly an unstable political landscape and a government hobbled by its own tensions and contradictions. Uppermost among these is of course Brexit. This will continue to consume all of government as it has already done for much of the past year. No part of government will be left untouched by it. The upshot is that other domestic policy areas are likely to receive minimal attention. This includes public health which rarely features high on the policy agenda.

Earlier in June, the Faculty of Public Health President, John Middleton, in a British Medical Journal editorial urged the next UK government ‘to make health central to all its policies’ (BMJ 2017, 2 June doi:10.1136/bmj.j2676). He concluded that just as local government had adopted a health in all policies approach, ‘national government must now become a public health government’. There seems little chance of that happening in the current febrile political climate.

Of course one can argue the merits of putting health into all policies as distinct from putting all policies into health which might hold more appeal for those who are suspicious of, or are opposed to, health imperialism. But the central point is valid. Most, if not all, of what government does impacts on the public’s health. Indeed, much of the support for political parties calling for an end to austerity was driven by a perception that the unrelenting assault on the public realm since 2010 was having unacceptably negative consequences for people’s health and wellbeing. It’s a small consolation that what has happened in regard to widening inequalities was predicted by the public health community.

So if we cannot look to national government for public health leadership in the foreseeable future, and that seems a forlorn hope given that the former public health minister lost her seat in the election and her successor is unlikely to make an impact anytime soon, what does the immediate future hold for public health? And where is the action likely to occur?

Having a disabled or incapacitated national government may not be entirely a bad thing if it allows local government and other agencies to go about their business without being subjected to a constant outpouring of policy initiatives and ministerial announcements and directives which invariably offer only distraction.

This suggests a need for the public health community to engage more vigorously than it has done hitherto in driving the 44 Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs) in England. Though flawed, deeply so in some cases, and poorly communicated with minimal public engagement, STPs and related developments like Accountable Care Systems (ACSs) offer an opportunity (perhaps the only one for the time being) to put public health centre stage in developing place-based approaches to improving population health.

STPs are underpinned by the Triple Aim (Berwick et al 2008Health Affairs 27(3): 759-69) which comprises: improving population health, focusing on patient-centred care, and achieving more efficient per capita spending. STPs and many of the other health system transformation activities underway, and being actively promoted by NHS England with back-up as appropriate from Public Health England, are aimed at managing demand on health care services.

This is not a new agenda – the Wanless reports from 2002 and 2004 commissioned by the last Labour government eloquently argued the case for making the NHS a health rather than a sickness service – but the drive for a systemic transformation has perhaps never been so evident.

The opportunity to bring about a much needed shift in health policy should not be lost and public health should be at the centre of STPs. They offer the best prospect of taking on the big beasts of the acute hospital jungle and wresting resources from them to put into public health. Yet, as research being carried out by colleagues in the Centre for Public Policy and Health (CPPH) at Durham examining the public health changes introduced in 2013 demonstrates, with few exceptions Directors of Public Health in Local Government and their teams and Health and Wellbeing Boards are failing to provide the system leadership that is urgently needed1,2.

Since New Labour introduced foundation trust status for hospitals, compounded by the Coalition government’s misconceived and unnecessary Health and Social Care Act 2012, the NHS has been bedevilled by fragmentation and an ethos of competition in place of collaboration. STPs and associated reforms including ACSs are an attempt to mitigate the worst features of the various reforms since the turn of the century.

It is vital that STPs succeed and bring about the whole system, place-based approach to health and wellbeing that they promise. But we are some way from reaching that goal and the risks are considerable especially when budget cuts affecting public health make it less likely that the necessary changes can be realised.

However, we must not make too much of the budget cuts invoking them to argue that it demonstrates how misconceived it was to relocate public health to local government. Had public health remained under the NHS, it is almost certain that it would be in an even poorer state than is the case at present. Those who remember the days of PCTs will recall the frequency of raids on public health budgets to offset overspends and prop up hospitals. At least public health under local government control remains visible and there is evidence despite the impact of austerity of authorities making serious efforts to become public health organisations and take health improvement and wellbeing seriously.

  1. Commissioning Public Health Services - Centre for Public Policy and Health (CPPH), Durham University: https://www.dur.ac.uk/public.health/projects/current/cphs/
  2. Evaluating the Leadership Role of Health and Wellbeing - Centre for Public Policy and Health (CPPH), Durham University: https://www.dur.ac.uk/public.health/projects/current/prphwbs/

Photo attribution: "Exactly." by Sam Rodgers © 2017: https://www.flickr.com/photos/samrodgers/34779376735

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