Friday, 20 October 2017

Monopoly money, pitching to the converted, and sending Mr Grumpy away happy: doing home and healthy ageing research differently

Dr Philip Hodgson, Senior Research Assistant, Northumbria University


Endings are rubbish, right?  Whether it be a great novel, play, film, TV series – there’s always that feeling that no matter how things are pulled together, it will never be as good as you have pictured in your imagination.  And then, you know, it just ends…

It was perhaps with this in mind that we decided to take a different approach in the last of our four workshops on home and healthy ageing.  Rather than guest speakers being invited to share their knowledge and prompt discussion, the project team attempted to summarise and pitch their ideas for future research back to the group (think Dragons’ Den).  This proved to be challenging, as the previous sessions had been so rich that even synthesising them into brief slides was difficult, never mind placing them in a strategic context for the participants to critique and reflect upon.  Yet, three key themes were identified.  These were in addition to the concept of a ‘home’ being more than just bricks and mortar but personal/psychological, physical and social/environment space(s) – an idea that we used as a starting block in week one and illustrated below.

More than just bricks and mortar
'Home' illustration used in the seminars 
The key themes were:
  • Policies and contexts: not only a tension between housing and health policies, but also the need to consider market and narrative factors influencing housing and health decisions;
  • The life course approach: the need to think about housing as an individual pathway, in which preventative measures and services are considered before crisis point;
  • Transitions and soft services: the need for support to be available as and when people experience key housing and life changes, such as reduced physical health, retirement, or the loss of support networks and being able to navigate different services on offer.
However, this is where we’d like to leave you with a cliff hanger: rather than going through each of themes in-depth (fans of this series will have to wait for our spin off…  er, research papers for that!), we’d instead like to reflect on our process at this stage.  These sessions took a slightly different approach as, rather than being a series of open seminars with presentations that people could dip in and out of, we invited several key individuals to attend each session in turn.  The reasons for this were many, but primarily we wanted to ensure that a diverse range of backgrounds were represented throughout (housing providers, architects, academics, local authority workers, homelessness workers, etc.) to go on a learning journey with us as a research team.  This meant that by the time we reached the final session, there was enough of a shared understanding that we could make the most of the group’s commitment to the project – we would be actually able to start to pin down quite complex concepts, practical issues and, hopefully, future projects.

We tried out different formats to structure the discussions: from world cafés, to games (with Monopoly money!) with researchers pitching ideas to mock panels, which worked to various degrees but always ensured a lively debate.

Do not pass Go. Do not collect £200
Pitching ideas with Monopoly money 
There were, of course, some difficulties.  As I’m sure everyone reading this will know, it is a lot to ask of a practitioner to take one morning out of their schedule, let alone for four seminars.  As a result, engagement had to remain a constant focus and I spent much time nervously lingering by the registration desk hoping for just a few more name badges to disappear before we started!  It was also a challenge in terms of managing the conversations during the sessions: you want all voices to be heard in such a diverse group but we all needed to be pulling in the same direction by the end.

Yet, by the final session, the rewards were immense.  Not only were we able to pitch ideas to a group who had already undergone some of the same learning as us, but this gave everybody the confidence to relate the complex theoretical issues to their own practice (allowing us to capture the breadth of what was possible).  It allowed us to discuss concrete projects, and leave the session with a sense of trust that networks were in place to actually deliver on them.  Perhaps most importantly we found that, what started as a broad idea, was something of relevance across the housing and health sectors.  Even the grumpiest of the project group (naming no names) left the day with a spring in their step.  For that alone, everyone who attended deserves some massive thanks…

So, who needs endings, when we can all just sign up to the sequel?

To be continued…



Photo 2: By James Petts from London, England (Monopoly) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 13 October 2017

From shock to the system, to system map and beyond: evaluating the UK sugary drinks tax

Guest post by Jean Adams, Centre for Diet & Activity Research (CEDAR), University of Cambridge

Mostly you don’t get to watch TV at work. The day that George Osborne announced he would introduce a tax on sugary drinks in the UK, here at CEDAR HQ we all stood huddled around a computer monitor watching and re-watching the words coming out of his mouth. 

Oh. My. Goodness. I did not see that coming. 

The “soft drinks industry levy”, to give it it’s proper name.

A rather senior professor has since told me that he totally saw it coming.

After we’d got over the shock of the announcement, the conversation turned pretty quickly to research (well, this is a university, after all). We have got to evaluate this!

Colleagues at CEDAR had already written papers about how sugary drink taxes could be evaluated. We had talked with colleagues in other countries about evaluating their taxes – only for those taxes to fall through at the final political hurdle. I have more than one half-written application for research funds to evaluate sugary drink taxes stashed down the back of my computer.

And here it was, all systems go for designing an evaluation for a UK sugary drinks tax! In our back yard!

OK, so we have to work out whether it impacts on diet. But, what about jobs? Will people lose their jobs? Surely we need to know if it changes price and purchasing of sugary drinks. Right, but even if it does people might just shift to other foods – maybe they will just eat more cake instead? We are Public Health researchers, we need to focus on health: does the tax change how many people get diabetes? Or tooth decay? Or the number of obese children? And what about how this even happened? Did you see it coming? Why has this happened? Why now? Why don’t we do interviews with politicians and find out how it happened?

Woah, woah, woah! Ten seconds in and this is getting way more complicated than we (I) had ever thought it might. Before we did anything, we needed to work out what we thought might be going on here. Once we understood what the potential impacts might be, then we could start thinking about how we might evaluate them.

So that’s what we did. We spent 6 months developing a ‘systems map’ of the potential health-related impacts of the UK Soft Drinks Industry Levy (aka sugary drinks tax). The tax is explicitly designed to encourage soft drinks’ manufacturers to take sugar out of their drinks. There are two levels – a higher tax for drinks with the most sugar, a lower one for only moderately sugary drinks. So we started there (at ‘reformulation’) and worked out.

Then we sense-checked our map with people working in government, charities, and the soft drinks industry. They made lots of suggestions for things we’d missed, or needed to clarify. We changed our map and asked people to check it again. We changed it again. Only then did we decide what we should, and could, evaluate.

The current version of our systems map (we still think of it as a work in progress). Larger version here.







Yes, we are going to look at how the price of sugary drinks changes over the next few years. But we are also going to look at the amount of sugar in soft drinks in UK supermarkets, and the range of drinks available. We’re going to use commercial data to look at purchasing of soft drinks, as well as other sugary foods. We’ll use the National Diet & Nutrition Survey to explore whether there are any changes in how many sugary drinks, and other sweet foods, people in the UK eat. We’ll use hospital data to see if the number of children admitted with severe dental decay decreases. We’ll use statistical modelling to predict how changes in how many soft drinks people drink might translate into cases of diabetes and heart disease. We’ll look at the impact of the tax on jobs, and the economy. We’ll explore the ‘political processes’ of why and how this tax happened at this time. And we’ll conduct surveys to find out what people in the UK think of sugar, sugary drinks, and the tax itself – and whether this changes over time.

Obviously it’s going to be a lot of work. We’re going to need some excellent people to join the team to help us actually do this thing. Personally, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed/excited/overwhelmed/excited. It’s going to be brilliant!

Wanna be part of it?

Friday, 6 October 2017

Looking for trouble: deceit and duplicity in the Troubled Families Programme

Introduced by Peter van der Graaf


Guest post by Stephen Crossley, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University

Many families facing health problems, limiting illnesses, or with disabled family members have been labelled as ‘troubled families’ under the government’s Troubled Families Programme. Originally established following the 2011 riots to ‘turn around’ the lives of 120,000 allegedly anti-social and criminal families, the programme is now in its second phase and is working with a far larger group of families, many of whom experience troubles, but don’t necessarily cause trouble. In April of this year, the focus of the programme shifted again in an attempt to improve the number of so-called ‘troubled families’ who moved back into employment, despite the majority of them being in work and many of the remainder not being expected to be looking or available for work.

The programme has been dogged by controversy from day one. Research about families experiencing multiple disadvantages was misrepresented at the launch of the programme to provide ‘evidence’ that there were 120,000 troublesome families in England. The government has since been accused of suppressing the official evaluation of the first phase of the programme after it found ‘no discernible impact’ of the programme and also of ‘over-claiming’ the 99% success rate of the first phase. 

David Cameron with Louise Casey, former Director General of Troubled Families

Many health workers will be involved with the delivery of the Troubled Families Programme in their day-to-day work, although there is also a good chance that they will not be aware of it. Many local authorities do not refer to their local work as ‘troubled families’ because of the stigmatising rhetoric and imagery associated with it. Many families are not aware that they have been labelled as ‘troubled families’ for the same reason, and because it would undoubtedly hinder engagement with the programme. They are not always made aware that the data that is collected on them as part of the programme, is shared with other local agencies and, in an anonymised format, with central government.

My PhD research, conducted in three different local authority areas, found that the programme was based on, and relied upon duplicity from design to implementation. Despite government narratives about the programme attempting to ‘turn around’ the lives of ‘troubled families’, the programme appeared to be more concerned with helping to restructure what support to disadvantaged families looks like, and reducing the cost of such families to the state.

For example, support – both symbolic and financial - for universal services, such as libraries, children’s centres and youth projects, is reducing. Direct financial support to marginalised groups is also being cut, with welfare reforms hitting many of the most disadvantaged groups hardest. These forms of support, and many other more specialist services, are being replaced, rhetorically at least, by an intensive form of ‘family intervention’ which allegedly sees a single key worker capable of working with all members of the family, able to ‘turn around’ their lives no matter what problems, health-related or otherwise, they may be facing or causing.

The simplistic central government narrative of the almost perfect implementation of the Troubled Families Programme was not to be found ‘on the ground’, where there were multiple frustrations and concerns about the depiction of the families and the programme, and numerous departures from the official version of events. Despite the rhetoric of ‘turning around’ the lives of ‘troubled families’, in the face of cuts in support and benefits to families, my PhD thesis concluded that the Troubled Families Programme does little more than intervene to help struggling families to cope with their poverty better, despite the efforts of local practitioners.

Put simply, the programme does not attempt to address the structural issues that cause many of the problems faced by ‘troubled families’, but instead encourages them to ‘learn to be poor’. In my previous Fuse blog, I drew on the concept of ‘lifestyle drift’ advanced by David Hunter and Jenny Popay: where the focus of interventions drifts towards attempting to change individual behaviour, despite the wealth of evidence pointing to other solutions. There is no room in the narrative for wider determinants of people’s circumstances. Because of this, the government’s Troubled Families Programme will do little to turn around the lives and health of the families it claims to help.


A summary of Stephen Crossley’s PhD research can be found here. His first book In Their Place: The Imagined Geographies of Poverty is out now with Pluto Press. He tweets at @akindoftrouble


Photograph ‘Almost 40,000 troubled families helped’ (14087270645_3453006d12_c) by ‘Number 10’ via Flickr.com, copyright © 2014: https://www.flickr.com/photos/number10gov/14087270645

Friday, 29 September 2017

Brands, bottles and breastfeeding: sharing stories of early motherhood


Introduced by Nat Forster


Guest post by Justine Gallagher, Lecturer at Northumbria University

My own story of infant feeding is based in a community where breastfeeding was, and still is, not the norm. I was the first in my immediate family to breastfeed and I struggled with it in various ways. My breastfeeding journey ended much sooner than I had originally planned, when my son was just six weeks old. Two years later, my own sheer determination helped me to feed my second child, a daughter, for nine months.

Justine's first steps into motherhood
Later, in a professional capacity, I worked supporting families in my role as Community Development Worker in Sure Start Children's Centres. I worked with mothers who had similar feeding stories to my own, as well as many women who had never breastfed. They, like most of the people around me, never had any intention to breastfeed.

The guilt I felt for breastfeeding my first child for a short time stayed with me for a long time. I did not understand why it had such an impact. Why did I feel the need to breastfeed when others around me did not appear to give breastfeeding a second thought? When the opportunity came for me to undertake PhD research, my choice of topic was never in doubt.

My research, which is supervised by Dr Deborah James from Northumbria University, is focused on the infant feeding stories of nine women who live in an area where breastfeeding rates are low. All of the women’s stories are equally important however, for the purposes of this blog I would like to introduce you to Claire (names have been changed to preserve anonymity), who formula fed her baby Sophia from birth.

Claire, her parents and grandparents have lived in the same local area all of their lives. Claire was a single parent and lived with Sophia’s grandparents when her daughter was first born. Sophia’s grandmother took an active part in her care. She looked after Sophia for two nights a week when she was first born, reducing this to just one night per week as time passed. Following a biographical narrative approach, which allows participants to tell their stories without interruption, I asked Claire for her story with the use of a single question;

"So, please can you tell me the story of your experiences of feeding milk to your baby?"
"Well I started when I was pregnant, erm, I’ve always wanted to bottle feed her er, cause there was pink bottles that I wanted to get her erm and also knew the milk that I wanted to put on her erm, and just bottle feeding become very easy to us."

Claire’s story was dominated with discussion of branding and consumer goods. The pink bottles and the various brands of infant formula Claire gave to Sophia reveal the way media and advertising can influence infant feeding practice. Claire demonstrates that she was careful with her bottle-feeding choices. These choices were not arbitrary; she made clear decisions between brands and bottles. Claire wanted me to know that she had made the right choices for her and her daughter.

It was also quite clear that Claire’s identity, as the mother of a daughter, was an important part of her story. The ‘pink’ bottles represent this in a very visible way, she could perform her identity as a mother of a daughter with the right choice of bottle. Claire’s relationship with her own mother was important to her and she appeared keen to demonstrate that this mother-daughter bond would continue for another generation.

These stories help us to understand why some women breastfeed and others do not. Upon reflection, for me, I feel that breastfeeding was about being the best mother I could be, which explains the guilt I felt when I stopped. For Claire, feeding her baby was also about the same thing, only for Claire, being a good mother was about making the right consumption choices. In my thesis, I expand on how Claire’s choices were based on the social norms, the unwritten rules of how to be a mother, in the culture around her.

Friday, 22 September 2017

The impact of advice services on health: moving from gut feeling to concrete evidence

Introduced by Sonia Dalkin


Guest post by Alison Dunn, CEO of Citizens Advice Gateshead

Citizens Advice Gateshead provides independent, impartial, confidential and free advice to people who work or live in Gateshead about their rights and responsibilities. Gateshead is an area of high deprivation. Overall, Gateshead is the 73rd most deprived local authority in England, out of 326 local authorities. Nearly 23,600 (12%) people in Gateshead live in one of the 10% most deprived areas of England. Nearly 49,800 (25%) live in the 20% most deprived areas (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2015).

As a result, our work is predominantly around social welfare issues to include housing, money advice, welfare benefits, relationship and family issues, employment and consumer. In 2016/17 we helped 10,820 people with 71,487 advice issues. We estimate our work has a value to the wider governmental system of £11.5m.

Physical health and mental health are inextricably linked. People with a mental illness have higher rates of physical illness and tend to die 10 – 20 years earlier than the general population, largely from treatable conditions associated with modifiable risk factors such as smoking, obesity, substance abuse, and inadequate medical care (Mykletun et al. (2009). Poor mental health is associated with an increased risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease (Dimsdale, 2008), cancer (Moreno-Smith et al., 2010) and diabetes (Faulenbach et al., 2012), while good mental health is a known protective factor. Poor physical health also increases the risk of people developing mental health problems.

For us, the link between our advice and health and wellbeing is obvious but persuading commissioners, policy makers and decision makers requires more than a gut feeling. So we feel very privileged indeed for the opportunity to work with Fuse and the research team at Northumbria University to investigate what we have always thought to be true, that our advice reduces stress and anxiety and improves wellbeing for our clients. 

The research constituted of a realist evaluation (the protocol of which is detailed here) of three of our more intensive services – one for those with enduring mental health conditions, one for young people, and one for those referred through their GP. The research indicated that stress was decreased and wellbeing increased as a result of accessing the service, using the Perceived Stress Scale and Warwick Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale. The research also tells us that our intensive advice services increase the options available to our clients, allowing them to be able to participate in more activities to promote wellbeing and reduce isolation. The service also creates trusting relationships with our clients, which was essential in maintaining relationships in order to help clients with their issues. Finally, the service works as a buffer between the client and state organisations such as the job centre and the Department of Work and Pensions, allowing the two to interact more efficiently. 

We plan to maintain our relationship with the research team and we are starting to talk to them about how we can build on this work to learn even more about the link between advice services and the wellbeing of our beneficiaries.

If you would like more information related to Citizens Advice Gateshead, please visit our website: https://www.citizensadvicegateshead.org.uk/ 


References: 
  • DEPARTMENT FOR COMMUNITIES AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT. 2015. English indices of deprivation 2015 [Online]. Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/465791/English_Indices_of_Deprivation_2015_-_Statistical_Release.pdf [Accessed].
  • DIMSDALE, J. 2008. Psychological Stress and Cardiovascular Disease. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 51, 1237-1246.
  • FAULENBACH, M., UTHOFF, H., SCHWEGLER, K., SPINAS, G., SCHMID, C. & WIESLI, P. 2012. Effect of psychological stress on glucose control in patients with Type 2 diabetes. Diabetic Medicine 29.
  • MORENO-SMITH, M., LUTGENDORF, S. & SOOD, A. 2010. Impact of stress on cancer metastasis. Future Oncology, 6, 1863-1881.
  • MYKLETUN, A., BJERKESET, O., OVERLAND, S., PRINCE, M., DEWEY, M. & STEWART, R. 2009. Levels of anxiety and depression as predictors of mortality: the HUNT study. British Journal of Psychiatry, 195, 118-125.
The research was funded by NIHR School for Public Health Research (SPHR) and is supported by Fuse (The Centre for Translational Research in Public Health). The views expressed are those of the research team and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Postcards from a public heath tourist #2: Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Guest post by Emma Simpson, Research Assistant, Newcastle University

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A few of our academics are lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel around the world to speak at conferences or explore collaborations - all in the line of work and the translation, exchange and expansion of knowledge of course.

The least we could expect is a postcard, to hear all about the fun that they're having while we’re stuck in the office watching droplets of rain compete in a race to the windowsill…

Here’s the second from Emma Simpson.

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Dear Fuse Open Science Blog,

It’s not just academics who get amazing opportunities, PhD students do too!

I am part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funded Digital Civics programme at Newcastle University and my research lies at the intersection of public health and human computer interaction (HCI) – broadly speaking. As part of this programme, I am are very fortunate to have the opportunity to undertake an exchange at another relevant institution.

Wellness Lab (L-R): Herman Saksono, Lily Stowell, Me, and Andrea Parker
(I also worked alongside Farnaz Irannejad Bisafar who is not pictured here)
Earlier this year, I travelled 2,637 miles to Northeastern University, where I began a three month internship as a research scholar at the Wellness Lab. The Wellness Lab is directed by Professor Andrea Parker and sits within the Personal Health Informatics department in School of Computing and Information Science. After having completed all of my preceding degrees at Newcastle, I was super excited to spend time in a different research institute and it didn’t disappoint! I had such a rewarding experience and because the lab was much smaller than I had anticipated that meant I developed close friendships with the other three students advised by Andrea.

Beautiful snowy view from Wellness Lab
The Wellness Lab has some very interesting research projects (and beautiful views from the office). The research mainly focusses on how digital technologies can alleviate health disparities and improve health and wellbeing across different populations. Some interesting papers here, here and here. I worked specifically on two projects - supporting reflective thinking through family storytelling to encourage physical activity and designing games for encouraging physical activity and social connectedness in Alzheimer’s Disease caregivers. Two very different projects based on gaming and public health, offering very different experiences and skill development and - although not largely related to my projects in the UK - both offered invaluable contributions to my development as a researcher.

I had the opportunity to lead some co-creation workshops with parents, creative writers and health experts to develop stories that could potentially encourage families to reflect on their physical activity behaviours – great fun and insightful, while introducing me to new methods and materials to facilitate important conversations around health, inspired by the value sensitive action-reflection model.

Unfortunately, the second project working with Alzheimer’s Disease caregivers progressed much slower and I didn’t quite get to the data collection stage, but I did design some paper prototype games which made me realise I need to work on my drawing skills!

Glass flower exhibition at the Harvard
 Museum of Natural History
I spent time working alongside Catherine D’Ignazio, Assistant Professor at Engagement Lab and Faculty Chair of Boston Civic Media – both of which are leading the way for collaborative, participatory civic research in Boston. Catherine and I worked together within a team of feminist HCI researchers to organise a 'Hacking Women’s Health' workshop at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Denver, Colorado, in May this year. The event was a two-day workshop with a mixture of 25 academics and PhD students from across the world working on projects related to women’s health and technology. It was my first ever experience of organising a hackathon style workshop and it was such a successful (and fun) weekend. You can read another blog about it here.

Boston is a great city and the architecture is beautiful. My favourite and highly recommended leisure activity is to visit the Harvard Museum of Natural History where you can view the glass flower exhibition. It contains over 4000 different glass models representing more than 830 plant species that were made to teach botanicals all year round - super impressive. My inner science nerd was elated. A must see if visiting the city but avoid going in the winter! As beautiful as it was, the -12 degrees and two feet of snow every few days became tiresome.

Thank you to my PhD supervisors Madeline Balaam, for helping organise this opportunity, and to Emma Foster and Ashley Adamson for their continued support.

Please feel free to email me if you would like to know more about any of the projects or Digital Civics research – emma.simpson@newcastle.ac.uk


Friday, 4 August 2017

Summer is coming

The blog was there at the very beginning, before it became ‘cool’. It’s even read all seven volumes of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s a self-confessed Game of Thrones geek. But watching the show isn’t enough, so it’s off on an adventure holiday to follow in the footsteps (or flight) of white walkers, wildlings and dragons.

First to Dubrovnik, Croatia and Mdina, Malta to explore King’s Landing, the biggest city in fictional Westeros (with a quick stop off at Lokrum Island - 4kms from Dubrovnik as the dragon flies - to visit the ancient port of Qarth).

Then on to Essaouira, Morocco - Gulf of Grief at Slaver’s Bay (you know, where Daenerys Targaryen - the dragon lady - freed an army of slaves to help her invade Westeros),

Next stop Castle Ward in Northern Ireland - the historic farmyard is the location of Winterfell, the seat of the ruler of the North and the traditional home of House Stark.

Finally arriving in Iceland to see the magnificent Vatnajökull Glacier, the Nordic island nation's largest and most voluminous ice cap to get the full 'North of the Wall' experience.

The blog will return in September.  If you are inspired to write for the Fuse blog in the meantime, please send your posts to m.welford@tees.ac.uk.  More here about who we are and what we're looking for.



Image courtesy of "https://kristina-finds.tumblr.com" via pinterest.co.uk: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/314055773985524526/