Empowering communities through integrated sustainable solutions #WBW2019

Empowering communities through integrated sustainable solutions #WBW2019

I’m a lactation consultant and writer who has just finished a Masters degree in Health Promotion at Leeds-Beckett University. This blog touches on some of the insights that my studies have given me, not least how data, like WBTi’s reports, can help health promoters create integrated, sustainable solutions that make health a resource to be shared by everyone.

In 1986, the World Health Organization (WHO) Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion defined Health Promotion as “the process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health.” Whether the focus be on breastfeeding, preventing obesity, supporting mental health or any of the complex (so called ‘wicked’) problems that challenge our societies, it is health promotion’s recognition of the social determinants of health that has most affected my thinking.  All too often our society is quick to blame the individual for unhealthy behaviours; my increased awareness of the social determinants of health, that is, how socio-economic, cultural and environmental conditions determine individuals’ well-being, has changed my perception. It’s given me a heightened awareness of how prevailing political ideologies influence the way we think about society, and how this plays out into how likely (or not) individuals are to be able to make healthy choices throughout the course of their lives. 

“This unequal distribution of health-damaging experiences is not in any sense a ‘natural’ phenomenon but is the result of a toxic combination of poor social policies, unfair economic arrangements …and bad politics.” WHO[1]

To give an example, indicator 6 of the WBTi looks at community-based support, so key to women continuing to breastfeed.[2]In the UK, the recent NHS Long Term Plan’s recommendation of UNICEF UK Baby Friendly accreditation is cause for celebration and will boost the capacity of midwives and health visitors to support breastfeeding in the community.

However, cuts to peer-support services, and the closure of over 1000 Sure Start centres have disproportionately affected poorer members of society. If a mother in the community has persistent nipple pain, no car, no public transport, no money for a lactation consultant and her nearest breastfeeding group is 20 miles away, even with the support of the hard-working volunteers on the National Breastfeeding Helpline, her capacity to protect the health of her family through breastfeeding will be limited. 

Incidentally, the discipline of Health Promotion, while focusing on the up-stream causes of health inequalities, is also focused on empowering communities to participate in the creation of healthier societies. The UK’s WBTi report, under Indicator 6, points out that in England and Wales there is often little coordination between NHS services and peer-supporters, who can offer so much to new mothers. It recommends a range of integrated postnatal services that include voluntary sector breastfeeding support, meet local needs and provide clear access to specialist support.

Integrated breastfeeding support is outlined in the criteria for UNICEF Baby Friendly accreditation for community services:

  • Basic: universal services such as midwives, health visitors, and support workers are trained to BFI standards
  • Additional: a network of trained local peer supporters and support groups
  • Specialist: a referral pathway to specialist help at IBCLC level, for complex cases that cant be resolved by “Basic” and “Additional” support

The guidance and standards on community breastfeeding support from NICE, Baby Friendly and Public Health England are summed up in this “Breastfeeding Support Within Maternity Transformation Plans: Guide to the Guidance” by Better Breastfeeding.

As an individual health promoter, the scale and complexity of the social determinants of health can feel overwhelming. Nonetheless, recognising them sets the challenge to health promoters (in all disciplines, not just those who work in traditional health services or policy) to work empathetically, creatively and collaboratively. After all, ‘Success in breastfeeding is not the sole responsibility of a woman – the promotion of breastfeeding is a collective societal responsibility’ (The Lancet).


[1]Commission on Social Determinants of Health (2008). Closing the Gap in a Generation: Health Equity Through Action on the Social Determinants of Health (PDF). World Health Organization. 

[2]Dennis C (2002) The Effect of Peer Support on BreastFeeding Duration among Primiparous Women: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Canadian Medical Association Journal 166(1):21-8.

Alice Allan is a lactation consultant, writer and communication specialist who has worked in Ethiopia and Uzbekistan on maternal and child health. Her novel, Open My Eyes, (Pinter and Martin) set in an Addis Ababa NICU, recently won The People’s book Prize for Fiction. She currently lives near London with her family and an Ethiopian street dog called Frank.

Prevention intention

Prevention intention

A Vision for Prevention

Matt Hancock, UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care since July 2018, launched his prevention vision on 5 November.

His other priorities are to advance health technology and provide better support for the health and social care workforce. He sees prevention as having two aspects. Partly it is about keeping well physically and mentally, to prevent ill health, but  also about the environment around people, their lifestyle choices and how existing health conditions are managed. The aims are for the average person to have 5 more years of healthy independent living by 2035, and to reduce the gap between the richest and poorest. At present there is a large discrepancy in spending with £97 billion (public money) spent on treating disease and £8 billion on prevention across the UK!

The proposed actions in the vision  are:

  • “Prioritising investment in primary and community healthcare
  • Making sure every child has the best start in life (our emphasis)
  • Supporting local councils to take the lead in improving health locally through innovation, communication and community outreach
  • Coordinating transport, housing, education, the workplace and the environment – in the grand enterprise to improve our nation’s health
  • Involving employers, businesses, charities, the voluntary sector and local groups in creating safe, connected and healthy neighbourhoods and workplaces”

The Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) paper is called ‘Prevention is better than cure: Our vision to help you live well for longer‘.

It states there is strong evidence that prevention works and recognises that a healthy population is both vital for a strong economy and for reducing pressure on services like the NHS (almost 10% of the national income is spent on healthcare). Average life expectancy is now 81 years, helped by:

  • advances in healthcare
  • changing attitudes so there is less stigma with some conditions
  • improvements in the environment, at home, work and in neighbourhoods
  • antibiotics and mass vaccination
  • public health programmes.

However, there are major challenges in the huge discrepancies between areas – ‘A boy born today in the most deprived area of England can expect to live about 19 fewer years in good health and die nine years earlier than a boy born into the least deprived area.’ (p.7)

Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive of Public Health England, welcomed the change of focus to more emphasis on prevention and pointed out the need for collaborative working – NHS, national government, local government, voluntary and community sector, and industry.  It will be important to monitor industry involvement to ensure that it does not create conflicts of interest, undermining health. Infants, young children, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers are particularly vulnerable, which is why the World Health Organisation developed guidance to protect them from conflicts of interest (WHO 2016 Guidance on the Inappropriate Promotion of Foods for Infants and Young Children) and other inappropriate commercial influence (International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, 1981, and subsequent WHA resolutions).

Improvements will depend both on encouraging individuals to choose healthy lifestyles and manage their own health, and expecting local authorities to take the lead in improving the health of their communities. The challenges of smoking, mental ill health, obesity, high blood pressure and alcolol-related harm are mentioned, along with the benefit of having a more personalised approach to health.

The section on ‘Giving our children the best start in life’ (p.20) mentions healthier pregnancies, improved language acquisition, reducing parental conflict, improving dental health, protecting mental health and  schools involvement, but infant feeding is not mentioned at all! 

However, in the Parliamentary debate on the vision (Prevention of Ill Health: Government Vision) on 5 November, Alison Thewliss MP made the case for supporting breastfeeding by investing in the Baby Friendly Initiative to bring all maternity and community services up to the minimum standard. Matthew Hancock’s reply sounds positive: ‘The earlier that we can start with this sort of strategy of preventing ill health the better, and there is a lot of merit in a lot of what the hon. Lady said.’

 

‘Prevention, Protection and Promotion’ at Public Health England

Earlier in the year (March 2018), Professor Viv Bennett, the Chief Public Health Nurse, and Professor Jane Cummings, the Chief Nursing Officer, came together to launch a campaign on the ‘3Ps –  Prevention, Protection and Promotion’, which is about actions to improve public health and reduce health inequalities. Breastfeeding is mentioned in the Maternity Transformation Campaign and Better Births and there appears to be increased govenment commitment to the key role breastfeeding plays in improving public health.

 

Directors of Public Health have a key role

The DHSC paper expects Directors of Public Health to ‘play an important leadership role’ (p.15). As an example, the Annual Report of Croydon’s Director of Public Health, published in mid-November, We are Croydon: Early Experiences Last a Lifetime, focusses this year on the first 1000 days of a child’s life.

It includes three breastfeeding recommendations:

  • Reset targets for increasing breastfeeding rates at 6 to 8 weeks and 6 months across the Borough and within particular localities
  • Achieve level 3 of the UNICEF Baby Friendly award
  • Turn Croydon into a breastfeeding friendly Borough, so women feel comfortable breastfeeding when they are out and about

 

How can progress on prevention occur unless it starts at the beginning – with infants? Will other Directors come up with similar recommendations?

 

Make London a ‘Baby-Friendly’ city

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, aims to “make London a ‘Baby-Friendly’ city” in the London Food Strategy. This strategy aims to increase the health of all Londoners from infancy onwards, including supporting and normalising breastfeeding across London Transport and across government buildings and workplaces, and encouraging all London boroughs to become Unicef UK Baby Friendly-accredited in maternity and community services.

 

The UK government is due to publish a Green Paper on Prevention in 2019 to set out more detailed plans and, together with the NHS Long Term Plan, which is due to be published soon,  is relevant to a future with better health for all.

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30. Photo for WBTi MAINN presentation
Patricia Wise is an NCT breastfeeding counsellor and a member of the WBTi Steering Group.