A large proportion of the ‘big killers’, namely heart disease, stroke, cancer, lung and liver disease, as well as long-term conditions such as diabetes, are the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices.
Preventable disease costs the NHS an estimated £5.5bn each year, with a further £31bn in costs to the UK from productivity losses and £20bn in lost taxes and welfare costs. These figures are expected to rise further in coming years, with costs to the NHS expected to rise by a staggering £5bn each year between 2011 and 2018.
Healthcare services in the UK are nearing crisis point, with patient demand growing exponentially, while NHS resources increasingly creak under the strain. To break this unsustainable trend, we must look to interventions outside of the medical profession and consider the potential of the vast wider public health workforce.
In a Royal Society for Public Health report, Rethinking the Public Health Workforce, we map out the professionals who are not specialists in public health, but have the opportunity or ability to positively affect health and wellbeing through their work. This workforce numbers an incredible 20 million people and includes, for example, allied health professionals (AHPs), fire and rescue services, hairdressers and housing professionals.
These professions are an untapped resource, coming into contact with the public on a regular basis, often with the most vulnerable in society, and crucially, enjoying a trusted relationship with the public. To reduce preventable disease, we must embed healthy lifestyles throughout communities, making public health everybody’s business.
With training, these professionals have the potential to deliver brief health advice, signpost to other services and support a wide range of activities such as point of care testing and social prescribing.
We have collected many case studies where this approach is already being utilised with considerable success, including fire and rescue service personnel trained in making every contact count, employment and housing advisers trained to deliver brief health advice and local authorities with a network of health champions based in a range of organisations, including healthcare trusts and children’s centres.
An opinion poll conducted by the RSPH found considerable public appetite for this approach, demonstrating that the time is right for this to be rolled out more widely. Of those surveyed, nine outof 10 said they trusted the advice from pharmacists and AHPs, over half trusted the advice from the fire service and one in four were willing to take advice from hairdressers and shop workers.
With increasing budgetary constraints, predicted rises in obesity and resulting condition such as diabetes, it is vital that we now take effective action to stem the tide of avoidable illness, and the wider public health workforce could be an integral part of this.
Shirley Cramer, chief executive, Royal Society for Public Health