This blog describes why I am running for a seat on the Faculty of Public Health (FPH) board . The FPH is the professional body for UK public health specialists. Elections are about to open for members to choose who sits on the board for the coming three years.
Last week I retweeted a slide reporting that between 2002-2012 more than 3 million deaths from malaria were averted due to measures such as bed nets and combination therapy. Isn’t that amazing? When working on health data we too often forget what it means. Contrast the horror of just one child or parent dying, with the joy if the same child or parent lives and then scale it up by 3 million. That’s what this figure means. It’s not just a number. It’s something that matters, something visceral, something wonderful.
I love public health. Working in public health we get to get up each morning and work to save lives. We are lucky enough to be part of a profession in which we get paid to understand and guide action on the most important problems in society, the ones which kill people, the ones which deprive people of their loved ones. And we get to do this at scale so that hundreds, thousands or even millions of people can have better lives. Our work is interesting and meaningful. We shouldn’t forget what a rare privilege this is.
Whatever part of public health we work in, improving healthcare services, working to protect communities from infectious and other hazards, or improving health by influencing behaviour or the environments on which it depends, this same underlying purpose is there. But it’s easy to forget this when caught up in the day to day processes of being a public health professional. For me public health is about holding on to our underlying purpose as we get stuck into the nitty gritty of making change happen. It’s about having maximum impact by improving the whole web of complex factors on which health depends. To this end there are three things which I would focus on on the FPH board:
1: The FPH as a supportive network
There are so many brilliant people working in public health. I want to help the FPH help all it’s members to have as big an impact on health as we can. I would like every member to be able to say ‘ I care about this [aspect of public health]….’ and for the FPH response to be ‘Great. We can help you with that … ‘. I would like FPH members to be more connected with and accessible to each other so we can help and learn from each other more easily. I think the FPH could function as a much more effective network. As members of the FPH we could better support each other to rediscover what really matters to us. I think we would enjoy our work and be more effective at it if we do this.
2: The FPH as a catalyst for system change
The FPH is uniquely positioned to understand and work on the systemic problems which hinder health. This includes working to make health one of the fundamental goals of ‘the system’, and understanding and altering the information flows and feedback loops which influence health. For example economic development not health is often the primary concern of public policy and so the health impacts of major policy decisions are not placed front and centre. Couple this with the fact that most public health professionals now work in local or national government so can’t provide independent assessment of these impacts and it’s far too easy for decisions to be made which harm health. We don’t currently have an effective systematic process which creates and communicates independent accessible scientifically valid assessments of all major policy changes. If we could create this we would have created a feedback loop which could help push the whole system in the direction of being more healthy. Alongside this I think we could be much more generous sharing ‘public health’ knowledge and approaches with others. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a much wider understanding of public health? Let’s not be a professional group which creates and protects our silo of expertise but instead take a more ambitious and forward looking approach whereby we are working to share and learn as widely as possible and in so doing we are changing the expectations of the whole system in which we work.
3: The FPH as a voice for a positive future
Public health already brings together learning from so many different disciplines that it is uniquely placed to understand how the future could play out. As such we should be taking a leading role in describing the positive future which is best for health and fairness. I work on climate change and health and I am aware that most people don’t appreciate the scale and pace of change we will be seeing in the coming years. Large scale changes to where we live, how we move around and what we eat will all be needed in the coming years to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. This is just one example of upcoming change but it serves to illustrate that if we can understand potential futures, identify the opportunities for health which they present, and influence the actions taken to create these futures then we can massively improve health. There is a powerful positive story to tell about the future and those of us who work in public health are uniquely placed to tell it.
The coming years could be the most important for health that humanity has ever known. I am seeking to join the FPH board to help it be fit for this future.
If you are a member of the FPH and support the ideas I have described then please vote for me and encourage other members to do so.
Update: An email with voting instructions was sent out to FPH members on 21st March from the Electoral Reform Services. If you have this email it only takes a minute to vote. So please do it now if you can.
Postscript: In this blog I have focussed on the large scale system changing work which I want to enhance at the FPH. In doing this I am not trying to imply that there isn’t already some good work along these lines happening at the FPH. I am also not dismissing the other important functions the FPH has e.g in relation to professional standards and training . These are important and I support the further evolution of these functions so we can be as effective as possible in our efforts to improve and protect health. If there are issues related to the FPH which you’d like me to comment on then please add them as a comment to this blog and I will reply.