Friday, 28 April 2017

From the office to Eastern Africa: how digital technologies can be used to assess diet

Guest post by Emma Foster, Lecturer in Public Health Nutrition, Human Nutrition Research Centre, Newcastle University

Life in academia can be tough at times. It can be difficult to switch off, the list of tasks can seem never ending and just when you think things are going to quieten down along comes that call for proposals that you simply can’t miss.

I’ve worked at Newcastle University for almost 20 years now and throughout that time my research has focused on improving how we measure dietary intake. In the early years this involved going into school and talking to children and parents, which was always good fun. More recently we’ve been working with adults developing online systems for measuring intake along with colleagues at Open Lab. The work is really interesting and I’m enormously proud of the system we have produced but life is predominantly office based now.

Earlier this year though, my enthusiasm for work was suddenly re-ignited with a slight change in focus for my research. For 12 days in February I left behind my 6 year old son (bad mummy!) and my husband and headed off to do some research looking at how digital technologies could be used to assess dietary intake in Africa. Along with my colleague - research associate Maisie Rowland - I headed to Tanzania to learn about the food environment there, looking at the range of foods available, and the way things are cooked, served and eaten. We also looked at the uptake of technology such as use of smartphones and internet access. We started our visit in Moshi near Kilimanjaro (every time I say Kilimanjaro I still break into a smile). The weather there was lovely and warm and the people were too. We’d been put in touch with a school teacher, Amina who showed us around two primary schools and one secondary school in the area. Seeing the cooking facilities at the schools was really eye opening. The schools all cooked over wood fires.


I was amazed at the secondary school kitchen; this was what I had expected to find in the homes in poorer rural communities but not in a large (700+ pupils) secondary school. Yet the staff managed to cook enough food to feed all of the students and had taken the time to provide information for us on the common local foods.

Every day for school lunch the children got maize and beans, one of the schools added oil to the mixture to make sure the children got some fat in their diet. Children brought a bowl, plate or other container (some had margarine tubs) and most ate with their hands. The children ate their food outside. Amina invited us over for dinner one evening. “I thought I’d cook you banana stew and elephant leg” she said, monitoring our faces for a reaction. Politely we said “that sounds lovely” but we clearly looked a bit worried before Amina roared with laughter and told us that elephant leg was a vegetable….it just got its name because it apparently looks a bit like one!

Before we left Moshi we got to tour the local food markets, where people buy the majority of their food. There was very little in the way of pre-packaged foods consumed.

Our next stop was Dar es Salaam where we worked with the Tanzanian Food and Nutrition Centre (TFNC). We conducted two workshops, one with nutritionists, dietitians, food technologists and public health workers at the TFNC, which Maisie and I ran in English, and one with a rural community group which the TFNC researchers ran in Swahili. Through the workshops we gathered lots of information about the foods consumed and how these differed between regions, the time of year, celebrations and droughts, and how people would share recipes and consume foods. We learned that African power cuts can last a whole day - the workshop at the TFNC was done in 35 degree heat with the power (and therefore air conditioning) off! We discovered that the foods we were served for breakfast at the hotel were usually only reserved for celebrations for the local population.

We took our research very seriously and ate at a wide variety of restaurants, cafes and street food stalls. The food over there was really tasty. For breakfast every day we had an amazing beef stew that we got the recipe for. I’ve tried to re-create it but mine isn’t quite up to scratch, I think it’s probably to do with the way that they rear the cows rather than my cooking skills....

We plan to work with the staff at TFNC to put in a proposal to the Global Challenges Research Fund with the aim to develop a technology based method of assessing dietary intake that will enable them to run what would be the first National dietary survey for Tanzania.

….Now back to the office for some proposal writing to get us back out there. Next time I might even take the family with me!

Friday, 21 April 2017

Sleepless in the slammer

Charlotte Randall, Higher Assistant Psychologist and MSc student, Northumbria University

The current prison population is 85,641 and around 50% of this population suffers from symptoms of insomnia. While this is similar to the general population there are a limited amount of resources to help treat this disorder in prisons.

Having worked in prisons for seven years, I am all too familiar with the problems that a lack of sleep can have on an offender's ability to engage with the prison regime, and the impact this has on their mental health. Due to the high prevalence of mental health problems, substance misuse and personality disorders in the prison population, the issue of sleep is often side-stepped and the importance of obtaining and having a healthy sleep practice can be forgotten about.

I am part of the Mental Health In-reach team in a prison in the North East, and have witnessed first-hand the effect poor sleep can have on an offender’s mental health. As this is an under-researched area, I decided it would be interesting and beneficial to conduct research on insomnia in the custodial setting. The aim of the study was to see whether a 60-70 minute session of Cognitive-Behavioural-Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) with an accompanying self-help pamphlet was an effective treatment in reducing the symptoms of insomnia in male prisoners.

As I work in the prison Mental Health Team full time, I thought this would be a simple project to undertake, however there were several hurdles along the way. Firstly I was required to gain ethical approval from several different organisations; NHS; National Offender Management (NOMS); and the University. Offenders are classed as a vulnerable population for research purposes, and therefore there is heightened scrutiny from ethic boards as a result of this. This process was lengthy; I had to complete three separate documents explaining the project’s benefits for each organisation. Once submitted, I was required to attend a full Research Ethics Committee (REC) where the research protocol and IRAS (Integrated Research Application System) form were discussed and additional questions were asked. It was then a waiting game to see whether the study had been granted ethical approval. As with any research project there was a deadline of September 2016, in which my dissertation needed to be submitted. Ethical approval was granted in June 2016, after recommendations had been made by the NHS and NOMS ethic boards and an amendment report was submitted.

On the other hand, recruitment for the study was relatively easy, which surprised me! Although it also identified the need for insomnia interventions in the custodial setting and confirmed that this research was important. The offenders were keen to engage, due to the lack of pharmacological (drug related) and psychological interventions for insomnia they were eager to find something that helped them sleep.

Results from this research were positive and highlighted that there was a significant reduction in insomnia related symptoms after completing the 60-70 minute session of CBT-I, with the accompanying self-help pamphlet with category C adult male prisoners. This research is the first of its kind to assess whether an adapted versions of CBT-I is effective in the prison population, where there are limited interventions and resources to help aid sleep disturbances. Although the results were positive, they have to be taken with caution as the prison where this research was undertaken has a unique regime and all prisoners are in single-cells which allowed them to complete certain aspects of CBT-I e.g. sleep restriction.

My experience of completing this research was positive; I enjoyed the prospect of analysing an undiscovered area and hopefully informing academia and practice within a public health setting. I did however find it hard in the early stages of this project, specifically going through the ethics process and length of time this took. A written report has been disseminated to NOMS highlighting the findings of this research. It also identifies how this research could be taken forward and inform future research opportunities. The single session of CBT-I is being delivered in the prison where the research was completed, more data is being gathered and will hopefully be published in 2017.


Photo attribution:
  1. “sans horizon” by poirpom via Flickr.com, copyright © 2015: https://www.flickr.com/photos/poirpom/16479845789/
  2. “prison” by erin via Flickr.com, copyright © 2007: https://www.flickr.com/photos/insunlight/1037277952
  3. “Insomnia” by Ben Harrison via Flickr.com, copyright © 2011: https://www.flickr.com/photos/48755144@N02/5564362009

Friday, 14 April 2017

Life inside foodbank Britain

Post by Kayleigh Garthwaite, Research Associate at Newcastle University and Fuse Associate Member

For the last three years, I’ve been a volunteer and a researcher at a Trussell Trust foodbank in central Stockton, North East England, finding out how a foodbank works, who uses them, and why. My new book ‘Hunger Pains: life inside foodbank Britain’ tells the stories of the people I met inside the foodbank over an 18 month period. The experiences throughout the book offer a serious challenge to persistent myths that foodbank users are simply seeking emergency food as a result of flawed lifestyle choices.

Every week, I prepared the three days’ worth of food that goes into each food parcel. I dealt with the administration of the red vouchers required to receive food, making sure that anyone who needed further support was signposted to where it could be obtained. I weighed kilograms of food in and out. I volunteered at the collections at Tesco supermarkets, asking people to add an extra tin to their weekly shop. Most importantly, I sat and listened to the stories of the hundreds of people who came through the foodbank doors for emergency food.

The idea that more people are using foodbanks because there are more foodbanks is a popular one. But, in reality, people are using foodbanks as a last resort, when the benefit delays, sanctions, debt and low pay have finally caught up with them. My research, as well as that of other academics, charities and frontline professionals showed that a major reason for people using foodbanks was the impact of welfare reform. It was common for people to have experienced significant problems with benefit delays and sanctions, which led to lengthy periods without income for themselves and their families. Other reasons that brought people through the foodbank doors were ill health, bereavement, relationship breakdown, substantial caring responsibilities, precarious jobs, and redundancy.

Although research has repeatedly emphasised the link between foodbank use and welfare reform over the past five years, the Government denies that a connection between the two exists. Instead, it chooses to dismiss foodbank use as a lifestyle choice of those who are unable to budget properly or who would rather spend their money on cigarettes, flat screen televisions, alcohol, and iPhones. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found that this political rhetoric had a strong influence on beliefs about foodbank use and deservingness, and could lead to stigma, shame, and embarrassment for the people who needed to use them. As a result, people would postpone asking for foodbank support until they were truly desperate.

The big challenge is ensuring that ‘emergency’ food support continues to be seen by the public as a consequence of food poverty and inequality, rather than a permanent solution. We need to listen to the stories and the voices of people foodbanks so that we can understand who uses them, why, and what it feels like. Perhaps these messages are reaching a wider audience now with Ken Loach’s latest award winning film I, Daniel Blake, which has been called ‘a rallying cry for social justice’ with its depiction of the inefficient and often cruel bureaucracy of the benefits system. It is hard to not feel empathy when watching lead character Katie in the haunting foodbank scene, or in witnessing Daniel’s day-to-day struggles in applying for job after job, despite being unfit for work.

But it is hugely important to make sure that the messages in the film, as well as the messages of the book, are heard not just by people who are sympathetic to what the research is saying, but also by people who don’t quite believe that the benefits system is really that bad, or who are adamant that poverty is a lifestyle choice.

Kayleigh’s book ‘Hunger Pains: life inside foodbank Britain’ was placed second in the British Sociological Association / BBC Radio 4 Thinking Allowed Award for Ethnography 2017.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Passionate Advocacy versus Dry Evidence

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Research Manager, Teesside University

Should public health researchers be passionate advocates of their work when engaging with policy makers or should they present their findings in the most neutral way possible, sticking to the facts only (and preferably economic figures) to encourage take up of their research? This question was the focus of a heated debate at the recent national School for Public Health Research Annual Scientific Meeting, bringing together researchers from eight different centres of excellence across the UK and a selection of senior health practitioners at the Royal Society in London.

Chris Whitty: academics should present their findings neutrally
to politicians without making any advocacy statements
The tone for the debate was set by Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department of Health, who challenged the audience to be more ambitious in their public health goals. At the same time, he warned academics to play to their strengths: if they wanted to ensure impact of their work, academics should present their findings neutrally to politicians without making any advocacy statements, as this would deter politicians. Advocacy should be reserved for politicians, who in turn are supported by economic advisors. Therefore, academics would do well to present their data in terms of opportunity costs and trade-offs; without solid economic back-up, any evidence claim would be quickly dismissed by politicians, according to Whitty.

This provoked strong reactions from audience members and particularly on Twitter, where a lively discussion ensued throughout the rest of the day. People questioned whether it is possible or even desirable to leave advocacy at the door when dealing with politicians. Some argued that, from a social science perspective, there is no such thing as neutral evidence and that it is our duty as public health scientists to take a stand and advocate against increasing health inequalities. Others disputed the need from politicians for dry evidence, stating that purely evidence based approaches can leave politicians cold without a persuasive narrative. Instead, emotionally informed and narrative research was important to persuade local government. Researchers needed to align themselves with local government concerns and cultures and acknowledge the importance of context to have any impact.

Duncan Selbie: academics should be more ruthless, coordinated and angry
in the interactions with policy makers to get them to act on the evidence
Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive at Public Health England, poured oil on the fire in the afternoon by appealing for the exact opposite to Chris Whitty’s call for more neutrality: academics should be more ruthless, coordinated and angry in the interactions with policy makers to get them to act on the evidence that academics have generated. He encouraged public health researchers to make more use of behavioural science to help policy makers take notice and implement their findings. This provoked several reactions, with some participants highlighting the role that advocacy played in the public health fight against the tobacco industry, while others made passionate pleas on soapboxes for the re-politicising of public health science, arguing that it was unhelpful to divide science and politics into two separate worlds.

The storm seemed to settle towards the end of the day, when Twitter users and audience members started suggesting solutions for the debate, which was dubbed “Passionate Advocacy vs. Dry Evidence”. One suggestion was that public health researchers should develop a ‘horses for courses’ approach: at certain times some people needed to be passionate advocates, while others at different times needed be neutral scientists to get the listening ear of politicians. The different approaches were related to different levels at which politicians operate: local politicians were more persuaded by narratives emerging from research and advocacy, while national politicians valued neutrally presented evidence and data.

Others suggested the use of intermediates to make the advocacy case for public health, such as voluntary community organisations that represent the will of the people, and by focusing research on the key questions that front line workers are struggling with. Or even better, persuade policy makers to become advocates of research evidence!

Overall, participants agreed that science needed to be pushed more up the policy agenda, as research is currently losing out to politics and economics. Therefore, in some circumstance researchers need to consider accept that submitting good enough evidence quickly is better than waiting too long for perfect peer reviewed publications. Furthermore, we need to be aware that different kinds of evidence are used in decision making processes.

My favourite solution was proposed by Professor John Frank, Director of the Scottish Collaboration for Public Health Research & Policy: if you want good policy influencers, you need to change the academic model to produce them. The biggest barriers to knowledge mobilisation are structural and often in academia. As long as we don’t train public health students in engaging with policy and practice partners, fail to teach and reward them in how to use different types of evidence and do not involve them in collaborative research, we will keep returning to this debate for many Annual Scientific Meetings to come.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Do public health practitioners make good fire fighters?

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Research Manager, Teesside University

Given ongoing budget cuts and diminishing local capacity, one might be forgiven for thinking that soon public health practitioners will only be responding to emergencies, such as disease outbreaks and substance abuse epidemics. Fighting these public health fires would leave little time and resources for prevention and working with other public organisations. An event co-organised by Fuse, Durham County Council and Darlington Fire & Rescue Service recently proved quite the opposite: fire fighters and other public organisations are very capable of ‘doing’ public health.

Can public health researchers learn a trick or two from fire fighters?
The increasing focus of the Fire and Rescue Services on prevention over the last 10 years has seen the development of innovative approaches that support public health: from helping people with dementia, to tackling child obesity and getting people active (for some excellent examples, see the Local Government Association (LGA) report Beyond fighting fires).

In Durham, the Fire and Rescue Service implemented so-called Health and Wellbeing Visits. As part of home visits to check fire safety, fire fighters ask residents questions about their health and wellbeing (e.g. about falls, smoking and alcohol use, heating and loneliness and isolation) and provide them with advice or signpost residents to relevant services to address any health concerns.

Over the past year (Feb 2016 – Jan 2017), no less than 15,732 Health and Wellbeing Visits have taken place with over 1,800 referrals to various services in Durham and Darlington, accessing vulnerable residents that are often not on public health’s radar. Because of their trusted reputation, the Fire and Rescue Service can get behind the front doors of these people and help them access health services. Perhaps not surprisingly most referrals relate to loneliness and isolation, with an ageing population keen to live at home independently but with a social care system lacking resources to support these people in and outside their homes.

Even the police is getting in on the act of public health prevention with partnerships being established between health and the police across the UK to support, among others, suicide prevention and reduce alcohol-related harm, as was recently illustrated in a Public Health England paper.

In turn, public health practitioners are taking on new activities that were previously deemed outside of their scope. For instance, the Durham County Council’s public health team is actively supporting energy efficiency improvement schemes (such as Warm and Healthy Homes), in recognition of the link between excess winter death and cold houses. Poor quality housing, low incomes and high energy costs result in residents having to choose between food or fuel. To prevent residents from having to make that choice, council officers are providing tenants at high risk (e.g. people with cardiovascular and respiratory conditions) with new central heating, boiler repairs, home insulation and energy saving advice.

This blurring of boundaries between public professionals is not new, but public health moving back into local authorities has created opportunities for linking prevention activities across a wider range or organisations. The event provided many other examples of this, e.g. GPs prescribing boilers to patients with long-term conditions and Citizens Advice providing welfare rights advice to elderly residents.

This new boundary blurring builds on existing policy initiatives, such as Making Every Contact Count and Health in All Policies, which all involve the wider public health system. Participants at the event made it clear though that this is not a simple cost-saving exercise, allowing councils to pass the public health buck to other parts of the system. Instead, these new partnerships are characterised by a genuine exchange of knowledge and practices between public organisations at the front-line. It highlights a new way of working that recognised joint priorities and the values of other professions to achieve these priorities through the sharing of resources and by taking on new roles. As Professor David Hunter outlined in his presentation at the start of the event, these new partnerships require a different form of leadership, which is less hierarchical and formal, not so much concerned with Key Performance Indicators and commissioner-provider splits, but more focused on the value of relationship building, trust and 'soft' skills.

The event provided a platform for looking at these new partnerships and the evidence for their effectiveness. If anything, it highlighted a challenge for public health academics to research these new partnerships: how to make sense of the contribution of each partner in a system where boundaries are rapidly blurring? Maybe public health researchers can learn a trick or two from fire fighters.

Find out more about the event: Creating Healthy Places in the North East: the Role of Fire and Rescue Services and Fuel Poverty Partnerships

Photo attribution: "Rochdale Fire Station Opening Day" by Manchester Fire via Flickr.com, copyright © 2014: https://www.flickr.com/photos/manchesterfire/13288225965/

Friday, 24 March 2017

Beyond bricks and mortar: re-thinking home and health

Dr Philip Hodgson, Senior Research Assistant, Northumbria University

In a time of continued public spending cuts, policy drivers to age in place (to grow old in the home or in a non-institutional setting in the community) and an increasing ageing population, the challenge to ensure that people can live longer and healthier in their own homes is growing. Yet, solutions for this, when a host of other factors – the development of housing to meet commercial rather than health pressures, future generations with little equity in housing that can be used to fund future care, the prevalence of a belief in a “forever home” – are difficult to identify.

That was one of the core messages discussed at the first ‘Home and Health’ research group hosted by Northumbria University and Fuse (via the pump-priming research fund) last month. This brings together researchers, practitioners and policy makers interested in the impact of housing on health. The seminars aim to foster a core working group, culminating in the development of concrete plans for collaborating on further research in this area. Building on insights from previous Fuse Quarterly Research Meetings (‘Creating Healthy Places in the North East’ in October 2015 and ‘Reuniting Planning and Health’ in April 2016), the seminars aim to take stock of existing evidence on how housing conditions can promote or impede healthy ageing, and identify gaps for further research. Our first seminar explored priorities for research from a policy perspective and we were thrilled to welcome Gill Leng (National Home and Health Advisor to Public Health England) to present.

Gill Leng, Public Health England, presenting at the Fuse research meeting
Gill highlighted the need to think about ‘homes’ (a term which people identify with and encompasses emotional connections to a place of living) rather than just ‘housing’ (a term used when referring to the workforce and describing bricks and mortar). While evidence and action often focuses on the risks posed by unhealthy homes, little is done to address unsuitable or precarious housing. Although most older people own their homes, these are not necessarily healthy. The challenge we face is to identify an approach to housing which allows its support to develop and mirror our own changing health needs through the life course. This is not just a case of using adaptations and facilities, but reframing how we conceptualise the home as a physical location, a part of a wider social environment and a personal / psychological space.

The conceptual spaces of home illustration used in the seminars 
Group discussions focused on this issue (among others). At the personal level, a tension was found between the maintenance of private life and the role of external sources of support. Current policy relies on care delivered by family members, but this can in turn cause problems for individuals without these links. Also, how do we develop mechanisms that initiate people’s thoughts on the best accommodation for them before they reach a point when they’re in crisis / a change is urgently needed and driven by necessity rather than choice (e.g. when people with dementia still have capacity to make an informed choice)? At the level of buildings and services, these problems take on a more concrete form, where the permanence, inconvenience and cost of a housing adaptation to support health is seen more as an obstacle to avoid rather than an enabler in the future. Meanwhile, within social and environmental factors, the current focus of housing policy on volume, rather than quality of public space, and a decrease in social cohesion were both noted as linked factors that could influence health as the population ages. The depth of discussion at each of these levels highlighted the importance of issues of home and health. But to address it we need to move beyond the ideas of bricks and mortar, and consider how we think about and use our homes to facilitate our health and wellbeing as individuals and a wider society.


Our first seminar explored priorities for research from a policy perspective
All of these issues will be picked up in future sessions, which will focus on good practice, existing research in the field and funding opportunities. We’ll be continuing to blog about each of these events and their outcomes, so please check back for more information soon.

If you are interested in joining the group and attending future seminars, please contact Phil Hodgson philip2.hodgson@northumbria.ac.uk

From left: Peter van der Graaf, Monique Lhussier, Natalie Forster, Phil Hodgson
and Dominic Aitken; organising team for the home and health research interest group

Friday, 17 March 2017

Food as a job, life and research: the many meanings of what we eat

Posted by Amelia Lake, dietitian and public health nutritionist & Fuse Lecturer in Knowledge Exchange in Public Health, Durham University

Food is my job. As an academic dietitian and public health nutritionist I spend my time questioning why people eat what they eat, and thinking about what we can do to change behaviours. As a mum, I also spend a lot of time at home wondering why a 4-year-old and a 17-month-old eat what they eat!

Its nutrition and hydration week, which aims to highlight, promote and celebrate improvements in the provision of nutrition and hydration locally, nationally and globally. So this is an excellent opportunity to explore the many roles of food in public health.
Top shelf material

Food is life. We need nutrition and hydration for life and to maintain health.

Food is a thread that moves through every aspect of our life from the everyday to the special occasion.

I read somewhere that the origin of culture was when raw ingredients were cooked. The importance of this event was not so much in how food was prepared but in the organisation of individuals around meals and meal times.

Food has shifted populations and started wars; think of the thirst for sugar, tea and coffee (also known as the ‘hot drinks revolution of the eighteenth century’) and the impact that had on various countries and their populations.

Food is our culture and identity; it is an intrinsic description of who we are and where we come from. For example, I am a complex mixture of Persian dishes, Indonesian dishes and some Northern Irish wheaten bread and Tayto crisps.

Food is our comfort. That dish your mother made, it’s a warm familiar blanket; it evokes memories, both good and bad. It is a way in which we show others that we care for them and are thinking of them.

The party bag horde - a focal point for arguments
Food is a focal point for arguments: “No you can’t have any more sweets from the party bag…” A conversation every parent has at one point or another.

Our social media feeds provide us with ‘food porn’, hands that whizz up magical results in seconds. Additionally, social media and the press provide us with self-styled food and nutrition 'experts' presenting us with spiralised courgette and clean eating advice.

Food continues to dominate our life and the public health agenda on a global scale.

The World Health Organization’s global targets for 2025 to improve maternal, infant and young child nutrition tackle a range of issues from obesity to stunting and wasting.

In this country we are familiar with the concept of our obesogenic environment; an environment in which calories are easily accessible and available and with little opportunity to expend that energy. In an attempt to tackle the obesity problem in this country our government will follow Mexico and introduce a sugar levy.

Despite the issues of over-nutrition and the seemingly endless opportunity to buy food, food poverty is a term we have become more familiar with. Despite it sounding like it belongs to another era, it’s a very real issue for a significant proportion of our population. Oxfam estimates that 500,000 people in the UK are now reliant on food parcels. Foodbanks provide nutrition to those who struggle to feed themselves and their families and have sadly experienced rapid growth in recent years, especially in the UK.

How can research help to address these global and local problems?

Free fruit with every purchase
Within Fuse ‘food’ runs through a number of research themes, from behaviour change to healthy ageing. As part of the national School for Public Health Research, a team of Fuse researchers has evaluated a food training programme run by Redcar and Cleveland Council. To promote the findings from this research we decided to create a short film and this week were filming in a small sandwich shop in the market town of Guisborough, where you were offered a free piece of fruit with every purchase. This small business owner’s focus is food. She provides food to customers every lunch time. This owner had attended the training course run by the Council and decided to make a difference by providing more healthy food.

This is an important step, supported by research. On this nutrition and hydration week, I am sure you will agree that there is still much to be done on this important and vast topic across many disciplines and on a global scale.

Friday, 10 March 2017

How I overcame my scholionophobia... a clinical pharmacist in an academic world

By Rachel Berry, Specialist Antibiotic Pharmacist, County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, and Health Education England (HEE) and National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Intern 2016/17

“Scholionophobia* – A fear of school, college or university”

So, I want you to picture the day ….. It was a sunny September morning and there I was, a clinical pharmacist currently working in hospital, standing by the River Tees at Queen’s Campus Stockton about to enter Durham University. And I was terrified. Honestly, the last time I was this scared walking into a university building was in 2004 and I was about to sit my Registration Assessment to become a qualified pharmacist. I was obviously suffering from scholionophobia.

Courtesy of mothmediatech & the creators of The adventures of Worrisome Wilf books

“But why were you so scared?” I hear you ask. Well, the answer is that I was just about to start my Health Education England (HEE) and National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Integrated Clinical Academic Internship programme.

The HEE/NIHR funded internship is a programme to enable Healthcare Professionals working in clinical practice to gain research experience and skills by working alongside a university academic. I had ahead of me, 30 days away from my clinical commitments that I could use to gain an introduction into clinical academic research.

My fear was based on the fact that I didn't know anything about research or universities. Not one bit. And I definitely wouldn't be able to do it myself. In my mind, research was only done by brilliantly clever people who know everything. I was only a lowly hospital pharmacist. I was pretty sure that I would be the most stupid person there!

Fortunately for me, I was about to meet my amazing academic mentor, and go on an adventure into the unknown world of research. I have gained experience and skills in literature searches and critical appraisal, project design and data collection, statistics, statistical analysis software (SPSS) and writing for publication. I have met so many talented, lovely people who have been interested and willing to help me, even when I probably was the most stupid one there (try explaining Poisson regression and statistics to a person who doesn’t have A-level maths!). It really has opened my eyes to the world of research, and the possibilities for clinical practitioners. My mentor has helped me realise that the skills and experience I have from clinical practice are just as important in clinical research as the skills of doing the research.

I am now coming to the end of my time. I have completed my project, which will be disseminated to local Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) to enable them to focus on key target areas to improve patient safety within antibiotic prescribing. I am also planning on publishing it, and hopefully this will allow the work to have wider impact. I have been able to take what I have learnt about research and its impact on patients back to my clinical work too. This has meant that I am more reflective and research-aware when doing my job. I have also shared this with the colleagues in my department, and hopefully encouraged them to be more research aware and active, to enable us to provide better care to our patients.

In the future I would love to do more research in conjunction with the School of Pharmacy as I have realised that blending our skills and experiences, whether they are clinical or research based, can lead to more relevant patient-focussed clinical research being undertaken. I am also trying to get other members of my department to apply for the Internship next year.

The 30 days spent at Durham University were some of the most challenging, interesting, frustrating and rewarding I have ever spent at work. My scholionophobia has been cured, with no medicines required. If you are a sufferer in clinical practice, I would recommend talking to academics in your clinical speciality and applying for the Internship; there is no need to be scared. And if you are an academic in health research there is a wealth of experience that you could utilise within the clinical teams; they would probably love to be involved, they just might be too scared to ask.


My thanks go to the team at North West Research and Development who ran the 2016/17 Internship Programme on behalf of HEE/NIHR. Also thanks to my managers at County Durham and Darlington Foundation Trust, and especially to Professor Cate Whittlesea and the School of Medicine, Pharmacy and Health at Durham University.

*Also known as Didaskaleinophobian or Scolionophobia.


Friday, 3 March 2017

The challenges (and joys) of evaluating babyClear©: a package of support to help pregnant women to stop smoking

Guest post by Sue Jones, Research Associate, Teesside University

A team of Fuse researchers from Newcastle and Teesside Universities published findings from the babyClear© study a few weeks ago and I thought that I’d put finger to keyboard to share with you the challenges and joys of evaluating the roll out of this innovative intervention.





















In 2012, I became involved with evaluating babyClear©, a package of support for maternity and stop smoking services, designed to help them to deliver the stop smoking message more effectively to pregnant women. BabyClear© was due to be rolled out regionally across North East England and evaluated throughout, which presented a number of challenges:
  • Challenge 1: different research questions – we wanted to know if this new approach worked and would it help women quit but we knew that this would not be enough; we wanted to understand what influenced those figures, and what healthcare staff need to do to be most effective.
  • Challenge 2: ethical dilemma – ethically we could not deny pregnant women a test like carbon monoxide monitoring that was known to improve outcomes to some degree, so the regional rollout of babyClear© offered a prime opportunity to evaluate the intervention using a natural experiment1.
  • Challenge 3: wide variety of stop smoking delivery models – the extent of austerity measures experienced by the public sector has been far greater than anticipated when the research was envisaged in 2011. At the same time responsibility for delivery of stop smoking services has been moved to local authorities who themselves are under extreme pressure to reduce spending. This has created a wide variety of stop smoking delivery models, all trying to provide a low cost service but with implications for the implementation. For example: babyClear© was designed to be a package that could easily slot into existing services, however it assumed a number of systems were standard when they were not, such as a midwife available at dating scan appointments and a local stop smoking specialist in pregnancy. All those Heinz 57 varieties of stop smoking service delivery models and systems within maternity services, each one different from every other, made it logistically challenging to implement the new pathway, leading to delays of varying lengths in each Trust area.
  • Challenge 4: researching within a changing system – due to ongoing changes largely in the delivery of stop smoking services, but also in maternity, and their impact on the implementation of babyClear©, data collection plans had to be re-thought again ... and again ... and again to reflect what was happening out in the real world! 
We were greatly helped in approaching some of these challenges by the publication in 2014 of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Guidance on process evaluation of complex interventions. Using this guidance, we were able to start re-shaping our thinking in terms of how the qualitative data could be used synergistically with the numerical data. We set about strengthening the methodology with a retrospective logic model, weaving contextual data into the mix and with an eye on the mechanisms of impact.

After overcoming these challenges, along came the joys: the findings of our study proved that babyClear© was not only effective but also cost-effective, which was a great achievement in such a short timescale. This new approach, which supported midwives to offer universal carbon monoxide screening and refer pregnant smokers quickly to expert help, nearly doubled quit rates.



The findings highlighted that we could systematically help women to stop smoking in pregnancy which will result in already well-evidenced outcomes such as:
  • Help mothers have babies who are heavier and healthier than if they continued smoking
  • Help more mothers lead healthier lives
  • Help mothers live longer and see their children grow up
  • Help the children to live and run and grow up surrounded by smoke free air; and 
  • Enable them to not be held back by smoking-related poor health
So have a read of our paper, this has the nitty-gritty of the statistical outcomes.

Importantly, soon we hope to be publishing the details about the how, what, when, where, why questions that were the focus of the qualitative process evaluation. Without this it is difficult to know how to implement it elsewhere to best effect and why it works well in one place and not another.

Celebrate our findings with us; if the maternity and stop smoking services are able to use the babyClear© approach to implement best practice/national guidance it can offer the support that is needed so that more women stop smoking during their pregnancy than did before. So keep your eyes peeled for my next blog – which will focus on the findings from the process evaluation.


Reference:
  1. “A natural experiment is an empirical study in which individuals (or clusters of individuals) exposed to the experimental and control conditions are determined by nature or by other factors outside the control of the investigators, yet the process governing the exposures arguably resembles random assignment”. (Reference: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/natural_experiment)     More info: Craig P, Cooper C, Gunnell D, Haw S, Lawson K, Macintyre S, Ogilvie D, Petticrew M, Reeves B, Sutton M, Thompson S. Using natural experiments to evaluate population health interventions: new Medical Research Council guidance. J epidemiol commun h. 2012 May 10:jech-2011.
Related content:

Friday, 24 February 2017

Two perspectives on arts and public health

Andrew Fletcher, PhD researcher, Faculty of Health & Life Sciences, Northumbria University

Engagement with the arts and/or creative practice benefits wellbeing in multiple ways. I am a musician and relatively new to public health. This post argues that arts and culture should have greater prominence in health and social care.

Courtesy uk.pinterest.com
So what of arts-based therapies? Compared to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for example, such programmes are not heavily promoted. Perhaps this is right; CBT is cheap and effective, whereas things like music therapy are often reserved for individuals with more complex needs. But this hierarchy contributes to the idea that arts-based therapies are ‘alternative’ – potentially placing them in the same category as, say, homeopathy. This is not a helpful perception, but anyone who’s tried to advocate for creative therapies will know it exists.

Then there’s ‘evidence-based medicine’, which is of critical importance, but whose dominance has been challenged.2,3  This is particularly relevant to approaches to health and wellbeing that are seen as ‘alternative’, which still seem to remain the preserve of those who can afford to try more ‘esoteric’ interventions – thereby reinforcing inequality. So what’s the response? Promote holism*; make arts therapies mainstream; emphasise their part in everyday life; make creativity and cultural engagement as vital as exercise, healthy eating or social interaction. The idea that creativity is intrinsic to wellbeing needs to be established in the early years and beyond, and to neglect this idea is missing a trick.

Courtesy tinybuddha.com
Why do people do art? Usually to express a political statement, to communicate a specific feeling or sentiment, or to satisfy some intangible ‘urge’. Making a painting to hang on your bedroom wall cultivates a more pleasurable living environment; putting your kid’s collage on the fridge boosts self-esteem; and who never listens to music? Creative practice, in one way or another, feeds into numerous wellbeing outcomes. Artists know this instinctively, yet policy around art and culture focuses on tourism and/or entertainment income, and a vague ‘intrinsic’ social value. Lip service is paid to health, but as Tiffany Jenkins says: “If you’re competing with hospitals, you’ll lose”.4

But art and wellbeing are significant components of the lived experience. They make us human. They sit at the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy** and most people understand the inherent value of culture to either social or personal wellbeing. If prevention really is better than cure, we must pay attention to the cultural-wellbeing landscape and the atmosphere these concepts exist in. Perceptions are changed through innovative and creative information delivery – so creativity not only has its own wellbeing outcomes, it’s also the key to shifting arts and culture towards being a major pillar in overall wellbeing.

I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like if the perceptions of arts therapies were different. Stickley (2014)5 outlines one potential scenario as follows:
The year is 2080. A new textbook has been published. The book is called ‘A Century of Healthcare’ and I would like to quote from this book:

"For most of the last century it was unusual for people to be treated holistically. Incredible as it sounds today, healthcare systems separated physical interventions from anything they referred to as "mental". Thus a dualism existed and people were treated as divided objects. At the time, there were many attempts at holism, especially by those who practised alternative or complimentary therapies. However, anything that remotely threatened the domination of the medical model was largely side-lined and researchers gave little credence to anything that was not considered scientific.

We should however give a great deal of credit to those who foresaw the potential contribution that the arts and humanities could make to healthcare and wellness but they operated in a narrow scientific paradigm that gave little acceptance to holism…”
The contexts in which creative practice occurs are complex, but the benefits are multiple and well-known. The key here is changing perceptions. This takes time, but perhaps Stickley’s vision will bear out. I hope so.


Footnotes:
* The idea that the human experience of wellbeing is social, cultural and complex, and extends far beyond medical definitions of health.
** 'Self actualisation' appears at the apex of psychologist Abraham Maslow's 'hierarchy of needs' model and includes in its definition (among other things): "expressing one's creativity".

References:
1. Various demographic data available from www.theaudienceagency.org
2. Greenhalgh, T., Howick, J. & Maskrey, N. (2014). Evidence based medicine: a movement in crisis? BMJ g3725.
3. Stickley, T. (2015). A little rant about evidence, available from: https://ayrshirehealthandarts.wordpress.com/2015/03/31/dr-theo-stickley-a-little-rant-about-evidence/
4. Jenkins, T. (2015). Front Row debate (23rd Feb, 2015). Are artists owed a living? Online: BBC.
5. Monologue delivered at ESRC funded Seminar Series on Arts, Health & Wellbeing, 15th September 2014.

Friday, 17 February 2017

How big food and drink are using sport

Guest post by Robin Ireland, Director of Research, Food Active and Healthy Stadia

You don't have to do much travelling to realise that the unhealthy alliance between sport and the Food and Drink Industry isn't only an issue in the UK.

I am lucky enough to be visiting New Zealand and Australia at the moment and it's easy to see all the same signs - and very similar marketing campaigns and messaging. Whether it's the All Blacks rugby team being pictured with the product of their "Official Hydration Partner", Gatorade, or the recent Australian Tennis Open full of alcohol advertisements (and I haven't even mentioned cricket), it's clear that the Food and Drink Industry have an international agenda.

Advertising featuring the All Blacks rugby team photographed in New Zealand

In January, the British Medical Journal published an editorial (Ireland and Ashton 2017)1 that I wrote (with Professor John Ashton CBE) about how Coca-Cola's publicity machine was subverting the Christmas message.

If anything, it's even more blatant in sport and we have been aware of it for some time from London's "Obesity Games" (Garde and Rigby 2012)2 to Rio's promotion of ultra-processed foods (Loughborough University)3. Even when spectators want healthier food, this choice is rarely made available to them.

George Monbiot recently referred to "Dark Money" (Monbiot 2017)4 which describes the funding of organisations involved in political advocacy that are not obliged to disclose where the money comes from. In public health terms, we may describe this as Commercial Determinants of Health where industry interests impact on our health. It is often linked to the increasingly sophisticated Corporate Social Responsibility policies being adopted by big corporations.

The latest of these is of course the deal just announced by the English Premier League and Cadburys criticised by the Obesity Health Alliance in a letter to The Times (Obesity Health Alliance 2017)5. Cadburys no doubt will argue that they are taking an ethical position to help educate people. But can we really take a chocolate company seriously that wishes to advise schoolchildren on nutrition, healthy eating and exercise?


FC Bayern München's branded energy drink
It is no coincidence that the mantra parroted by food and drink sponsors is that our diets are down to individual choice and that if we simply took more exercise we wouldn't be having the obesity epidemic now prevalent worldwide. This is rubbish. So called energy and sports drinks should have no part to play in the diet of the average member of the public. Kids do not need more sugar (or more protein for that matter) if they are eating a balanced diet with lots of fruit and veg. But of course the food and drink industry do not make their enormous profits in this way.

It is these concerns - amongst many others - that encouraged myself and colleagues to establish Healthy Stadia in 2005, of which I am a Director. Healthy Stadia takes a holistic and integrated approach to developing sports stadia and clubs as "health promoting settings":
"Healthy Stadia are those which promote the health of visitors, fans, players, employees and the surrounding community" (from Healthy Stadia website)6.

Healthy Stadia's Conference which will be held at the Emirates Stadium, London, in April will be discussing food and drink sponsorship in professional sport among other issues. I anticipate that these topics will come under increasing public scrutiny in years to come, as we develop more awareness of the impact that marketing has on our food and drink choices. (Cairns et al., 2013)7.

Sports fans and public health professionals alike should be questioning how 'Our Beautiful Games' are being manipulated by the Food and Drink Industry to promote ultra-processed food and drink - including alcohol - to audiences, often well populated by impressionable youngsters. Let's see if we can link up the campaigns in different countries to make a louder voice demanding change from the governing bodies of sport.
References:
  1. Ireland R and Ashton John R. (2017). Happy corporate holidays from Coca-Cola. BMJ 2017;356:i6833. http://www.bmj.com/content/356/bmj.i6833. 10 January 2017.
  2. Garde A and Rigby N. (2012). Going for gold – should responsible governments raise the bar on sponsorship of the Olympic games and other sporting events by food and beverage companies? Commun Law. 2012:356:42-9.
  3. Loughborough University Press Release (2016). Loughborough research calls for change in spectator food and drink provision at sports mega events such as Rio 2016. PR/16/158. http://www.lboro.ac.uk/media-centre/press-releases/2016/december/loughborough-research-calls-for-change-in-spectator-food-and-drink-provision-at-.html. 05 December 2016.
  4. Monbiot G. How corporate dark money is taking power on both sides of the Atlantic. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/02/corporate-dark-money-power-atlantic-lobbyists-brexit. 02 February 2017.
  5. Obesity Health Alliance (2017). Letter to The Times – Cadbury and Premier League Sponsorship. Accessed online at: http://obesityhealthalliance.org.uk/2017/02/06/letter-times-cadbury-premier-league-sponsorship/?utm_campaign=Cadbury%20letter. 06 February 2017.
  6. European Healthy Stadia Network. http://www.healthystadia.eu/about.html
  7. Cairns G, Angus K, Hastings, G and Caraher M (2013). Systematic reviews of the evidence on the nature, extent and effects of food marketing to children. A retrospective summary. Appetite 2013: 356:209-15. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666312001511. 03 March 2013.
All views expressed are exclusively those of the author.

Friday, 10 February 2017

The importance of partnership working to improve priority-setting in public health decision-making

Guest post by Sarah Hill, Fuse PhD student, Newcastle University

Last month I attended a workshop in London that explored how local authorities could be supported in setting priorities to improve people’s health and wellbeing. The workshop provided a platform to report the findings of a follow-on study to the Fuse led "Shifting the Gravity of Spending?" project and to explore methods for supporting local authorities in priority-setting.  Watch the video below to find out more about the study.

As a health economics PhD student looking into methods of evaluating public health interventions, the workshop was of interest to me since the prioritisation tools focused on at the workshop are a part of the evaluative toolkit I am examining. Additionally, as a health economist by trade - who was thrown-in at the deep-end of public health just over a year ago when I started my PhD research - any opportunity to meet those working in the public health field is one that I seize in order to broaden my knowledge and appreciation of the public health context.  Particularly public health officers and those working outside of the academic realm.

A full report of the workshop can be found here for those who are interested in the outcomes of the event; I will focus here on a few of the key points from the event.

Small group discussions centred around partnership working
At the close of the workshop, following small group discussions, each group of delegates was asked to feedback one key point that came out of their discussion regarding how to aid the use of prioritisation tools for public health spending decisions. Interestingly, a number of the points fed back from each group were related to partnership working to make decisions; such as:
  •  “gathering together” with NHS partners to ensure funding for effective interventions is secured when benefits may fall outside of public health’s remit and more under the NHS umbrella; 
  • considering a “place based” approach to seek good outcomes within a place rather than within separate organisations and;
  • working with local politicians to move decisions forward by understanding their objectives.
The take-home message I got from these points was that for priority-setting to be most successful in public health, a wider viewpoint needs to be considered given the number of stakeholders outside of public health teams that are involved in funding decisions and interventions being successfully implemented. This point echoes a sentiment voiced by Professor Peter Kelly at the recent Fuse meeting on inequalities (see Professor Paul Johnstone’s blog on the meeting here) who emphasised the huge reduction in both alcohol-related hospital admissions and smoking rates in the North-East since a regional approach has been taken to tackling tobacco and alcohol through pooling local resources to invest in initiatives like Fresh and Balance.

The impetus placed on collaborative working coming out of the workshop has given me something to think about for my PhD research since it appears that being able to evaluate interventions in such a way that incorporates and reflects that way of working is valuable. In fact, this is not necessarily a new thought; incorporating intersectoral costs and consequences has been established as a challenge to be addressed when evaluating public health interventions by health economists previously. A review I recently conducted on existing economic evaluations of public health interventions indicates that there is still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to overcoming this challenge and actually incorporating intersectoral costs and consequences. Often evaluations are conducted from either a health care or provider perspective, thus only considering the costs to those sectors exclusively. Also, of the evaluations I reviewed and those previously identified in the literature, the incorporation of consequences (i.e. benefits or disbenefits) to sectors other than the intervention provider is practically non-existent.

Perhaps if more evaluations were able to reflect who benefits from an intervention and to what extent this may enable more collaborative working between different partners and sectors in either funding and/or aiding with the implementation of interventions. Of course the availability of appropriate data is a real barrier since an evaluation is only as good as its data, thus a drive needs to be made within public health departments to stipulate the collection of appropriate outcomes data from the very beginning of an intervention being commissioned to build up the database for effective evaluations.

Shifting the Gravity of Spending? Workshop to explore methods in public health priority-setting was held on the 17 January 2017, and funded by the NIHR School of Public Health Research and supported by the Local Government Association and Public Health England.  The “Shifting the Gravity of Spending?” project is led by Fuse Deputy Director Professor David Hunter at Durham University.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Mannequin challenge: preparing cancer nurses through simulating emergency situations

Guest post by Gillian Walton, Director of Learning and Teaching, Northumbria University 

Tomorrow (4 February) is World Cancer Day, a day where millions of people across the world unite to raise awareness of cancer. One in two people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives (cancer research UK), an alarming statistic. Currently, 8.2 million people die from cancer worldwide every year, out of which, 4 million people aged 30 to 69 years die prematurely.

Of the millions of people diagnosed, a high percentage will receive systemic chemotherapy (anti-cancer drugs that are injected into a vein or given by mouth) as a primary, secondary or palliative form of treatment.

Students role play chemotherapy induced emergency situations
As a previous oncology nurse I’m acutely aware that managing chemotherapy and the potential life threatening side effects can be demanding and highly stressful. Management of acute side effects is usually a nursing responsibility which adds extra pressure not only on resources but the knowledge required of the many drugs available to treat over 200 different cancers. Chemotherapy drugs are highly toxic and can have life threatening side effects, so managing severe reactions is essential. This can therefore be a scary environment for both the nurse and the patient!

Mannequins mimic the symptoms of a deteriorating patient 
At Northumbria University I run a chemotherapy module and have designed a simulation based interactive educational (SBE) activity to encourage students to engage in scenarios to simulate chemotherapy induced emergency situations. Simulated practice has been described as the "activities that mimic the reality of a clinical environment and are designed to demonstrate procedure, decision making and critical thinking through techniques such as role playing and the use of devices such as interactive manikins” (Jefferies 2005)1. Ongoing qualitative research by my colleague Alan Platt who collaborates with me on this project has shown that the use of simulation informs and improves student performance. His knowledge and findings have facilitated translating the theory into practice. We use high fidelity mannequins, which can mimic the symptoms of a deteriorating patient so the student can role play chemotherapy induced emergency situations in a safe simulated clinical environment. Students are briefed prior to the encounter about the clinical scenario and their role as a nurse caring for a patient in a chemotherapy day unit. They are asked to be themselves and to act as they would if they were at work in the clinical area. A clinical expert assists the learning experience by providing prompts for the nurses to manage the emergency situation. Covert cameras record the scenario in real time and allow the students to review and reflect “on action” and evaluate their performance following the scenario. I then debrief the group which is widely recognised as a critical element of simulation-based education. Debriefing following the scenario allows the students to engage in reflective learning(Fanning and Gaba 2007)2,3 as well as consider decision making, risk management, patient safety and communication amongst the team. Although the students initially find it a bit daunting being filmed and working with dummies that can actually speak, breath and blink their eyes, they also have said that it’s a fun and great way to learn.

All students complete a questionnaire after the SBE relating to the learning experience. To date, 100% of the students reported that the use of simulation enhanced their learning and that the learning was stimulating and exciting. The majority of the students said that they would recommend the learning experience to a colleague. Comments suggest that they learnt how to react if they experienced the situation again in practice which increased their overall confidence; the main objective of the exercise.

The use of simulation means students feel much better prepared to manage chemotherapy emergencies. Overall they valued the learning experience and the opportunity to reflect on their practice in a safe environment. This in turn translates to greater safety for students and patients.

Evaluation and research findings provide support that simulation is an effective learning technique which prepares students to manage the situation should it arise in clinical practice.

References:
  1. Jeffries, P. (2005) A framework for designing, implementing and evaluation simulation used as teaching strategies in nursing. Nurse Education Perspective; 26: 2, pp96-103
  2. Fanning RM, Gaba DM. (2007) The role of debriefing in simulation-based learning. Simul healthc;2:115Y125.
  3. Gaba DM. (2004) The future vision of simulation in health care. Qual Saf Health Care;13(suppl 1):i2Yi10.