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Research: the best medicine?

Posted on 23 September 2016 by Guy Goodwin, Chief Executive .
Tags: Health Survey for England, National Diet and Nutrition Survey, health, healthy eating

A visit to the doctor leaves Chief Executive Guy Goodwin considering the role of research in health interventions, and regretting that slice of lemon meringue pie. 

Lemon Meringue Pie

Simple health interventions are increasingly being used in an attempt to make us healthier, as well as saving the health service potentially millions of pounds.

When I visited my GP practice for a routine check-up, I was asked (as a divorced man in his fifties) whether I was able to cook, what had I eaten for breakfast (I regretted having that leftover slice of lemon meringue pie) and did I need to have a chat about contraception (one daughter - all planned). I left being told that I was in reasonably good shape but should lose more weight.

Something so simple has the potential to have an impact on our wellbeing. As the health sector broadens its remit, from curing the ailments of the sick, towards gently encouraging preventive measures at a population level, social research has an increasingly important role to play. 

Enhancing interventions and establishing value for money

Robust evaluation is important to understand which interventions work, how to improve them and whether public money is being spent effectively. Last year, we were asked to evaluate an online version of the over-50 health check in Wales for the Welsh Assembly. While the online check reaffirmed existing intentions - to lose weight, do more exercise etc. - there was no evidence yet of actual behaviour change.

Tracking behaviour shifts over time

Alongside specific evaluations, ongoing studies can give us a valuable insight into behaviour shifts that can be viewed alongside policy change. This month, the latest figures from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey show that only 8% of teenagers are eating their five-a-day.

At first glance, this seems to chime with the accepted wisdom that guidelines simply don’t work. However, trend data from another of our studies, Health Survey for England, shows that there has been a shift in fruit and veg intake among children since campaigns like 5-a-day and Change4Life were put place in the early 2000s.

On average, children are eating one more portion a day than they did in 2003. It doesn’t sound like much but at the population-level this is important news. It goes to show that softer, more positive approaches can be made to work, just maybe not as much as policy makers would like.

Identifying how society changes - so that interventions learn from the real world

Research can also reveal how things are changing in society - without government necessarily lifting a finger. The latest results from the Scottish Health Survey show a significant rise in e-cigarette use among adults with around 100,000 more people vaping than in the previous year. From the headline results, it’s not clear how this interacts with smoking rates - this needs further unpicking - but provides food-for-thought for those who design stop-smoking interventions.  

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