I attended my first Faculty of Public Health Annual Conference at Imperial College London last week. I’m told it used to be a 2-day event with several breakout sessions, but this was a smashing one day event with a keynote address from the new Secretary of State for Health( more of whom later), two plenary sessions – one with Dame Tanni Grey Thompson, explaining why we have to make physical activity and exercise attractive to women and girls, and a Dragons Den style plenary where various people made a pitch to protect some aspect of public health spending.
There was also a poster exhibition which included a poster from Justin Varney at Barking and Dagenham on animal sex and other ways of tackling teenage conceptions.
And in between there was the Faculty AGM with a formal handover (including gold trimmed black gown and medal) from Professor Alan Maryon Davies, the ebullient outgoing president to Professor Lindsey Davies, the former national flu director who had set out her priorities in an interview in The Guardian that morning. The Health Secretary’s speech was one in a series of four focusing on his priorities (putting patients at the heart of the health service; giving greater autonomy and accountability to local health services, empowering health professionals and now, improving public health.
His key messages I felt were about making healthy lifestyles the norm through “nudging” and improving self esteem, and Connected; developing a national public health service responding to emergencies and protecting the health of the population, but also setting strategy and providing resources and evidence for local delivery of health improvement largely working through communities- including the 3rd sector and the private sector.
He took a few questions, one on the role of public health in commissioning which he answered by referring the questioner to his BMA speech; and another on ensuring the importance of protecting the children’s workforce if health inequalities were to be successfully tackled.
I also attended an interesting debate on inequalities in a cold economic climate with a panel that included Samantha Callan from the Centre for Social Justice (which was described as Iain Duncan Smith’s favourite think-tank) and Peter Kellner, President of YouGov.
Kellner’s prescription for tackling health inequalities, given a lack of national appetite for income redistribution was to design a society where income matters less- where access to good housing, education, healthcare and lifestyle was not simply a function of your ability to pay. Callan argued for a shift from a focus on child poverty to a more family focused approach, and involving communities citing the work of Participle, and the intergenerational centre in Merton.
Chris Bentley of the National Support Team on Health Inequalities talked about the practical ways of reducing the gap in life expectancy that his team had encountered across the country.
In the Dragons Den segment, moderated by Adam Brimelow of the BBC, the dragons- Julian Le Grand of the LSE, Anna Dixon of the King’s Fund, Anna Coote of the New Economics Foundation and Portsmouth Director of Public Health Paul Edmondson-Jones, listened to various speakers pitch for what should be protected in a recession- with suggestions ranging from obesity prevention interventions to protecting the public health workforce.
In the end, the dragons (and most of the audience) plumped for London School of Hygiene Professor Martin McKee’s passionate plea for an active labour market and investing in jobs and West Kent registrar Darren Gale’s plea for investment in improving housing stock, reducing healthcare costs, improving the environment and providing jobs.
Ike Anya is a Nigerian public health doctor working in London and co-founder of the Nigerian Public Health Network.