Addressing the key public health issues of our time

Ella Rhodes reports on a new government strategy: 'Improving people’s health: Applying behavioural and social sciences to improve population health and wellbeing in England'.

The government has announced new guidance which promises 'A comprehensive and collaborative strategy to enable public health professionals to use behavioural and social sciences to improve health and wellbeing'. Led by Public Health England’s Behavioural Insights Team, along with the involvement of many psychologists and the British Psychological Society, the 'Improving People's Health' document is published today

The approach was driven by the growing recognition of the role of structural, social and behavioural factors on the population’s health. The authors also point to the under-utilisation of findings from these sciences despite wide-reaching contributions which could be used within public health.

The strategy points to some of the many contributions of the social and behavioural sciences in the public health realm, including key theories and tools developed by health, social, and cognitive psychologists. It also points out that trans-disciplinary approaches could be more widely adopted within public health. 

In a blog on the new strategy Dr Tim Chadborn, Head of Behavioural Insights and Evaluation Lead at Public Health England, will write: ‘In order to effectively prevent poor health, we need an approach that takes account of the whole person, social context, and wider aspects such as education, employment, social norms, and the built and online environment. This would be a comprehensive systems approach that draws on multiple behavioural and social sciences, including psychology, behavioural economics, sociology and anthropology.’

The groups involved with developing the strategy, including the Association of Directors of Public Health, Faculty of Public Health, Behavioural Science and Public Health Network, and the Local Government Association, identified eight priority themes to work on in the coming months and years. These include making the knowledge and skills from the social and behavioural sciences mainstream within organisations which commission, research, design and deliver public health services and increasing programmes, policies and interventions underpinned by this evidence. There is a commitment in Year 1 to the Behavioural Science and Public Health Network and British Psychological Society Division of Health Psychology creating a contact directory of behavioural science experts and public health professionals.

Professor Jim McManus, Director of Public Health at Hertfordshire County Council, who has been instrumental in the development of this new approach, said: ‘We will now start work on a series of quality standards of how the public health system should incorporate social sciences and behavioural sciences in their work which will be part of the suite of standards being produced nationally for aspects of the public health system.’

Karen Rodham (Professor of Health Psychology, Staffordshire University) said it was a privilege to play a small part in the development of the strategy. ‘It is the first time that professionals from many fields have come together to develop a truly collaborative behavioural and social science public health strategy. The reason that this is important is that it has the potential to make a huge difference to our ability to improve and protect the public’s health and wellbeing because it provides a foundation for cross-disciplinary co-ordinated action; something that is vital if we are to address and reduce the key public health issues of our time.’

Nigel Atter, from the British Psychological Society's Policy Team, served on the Writing and Reviewing Group. Other psychologists involved included Jo Hart, Roxane Gervais, and Stephen Sutton (from the Society's Behavioural Change Advisory Group). 

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