How have health librarians been responding to the Covid-19 pandemic?

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic over the past 18 months has highlighted the vital role of information and knowledge services in supporting health and social care, public health, and medicine.

Last month’s Annual CILIPS Conference included a presentation about #HealthLibrariansAddValue – a joint advocacy campaign between CILIPS and NHS Education for Scotland (NES) which aims to showcase the skills of health librarians and demonstrate the crucial role of health libraries.

Library and knowledge services in the health sector have faced increased pressures and a multitude of challenges throughout the pandemic as they have continued to develop and deliver vital services and resources to colleagues under unprecedented restrictions and changed working practices. With the demand for trustworthy and reliable health information higher than ever, it is clear that well-resourced, coordinated and accessible knowledge services are essential.

Supporting the frontline

Throughout the pandemic, the work of health librarians has been vital in supporting frontline workers including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and social workers. Hospital library services have been directly involved in medical decision-making, providing evidence and resources to support patient care and the training of medical staff. As the information needs of the medical workforce have changed through the course of the pandemic, health libraries have had to be fast and flexible to provide time sensitive and urgent information to those on the frontline.

A project undertaken by the NHS Borders Library Service saw the creation of a new outreach service for local GPs, which involved the delivery of targeted current awareness bulletins, resource lists, and Covid-19 research updates, all of which directly informed the provision of primary patient care and helped to keep GPs up to date on emerging knowledge about the coronavirus.

Health Education England’s (HEE) Library and Knowledge team adapted their services to meet changing workplace needs, ensuring 24/7 access to digital knowledge resources, gathering evidence on how to keep staff safe while working, and developing training programmes to support virtual working practices for healthcare staff.

Supporting decision-making across sectors

Health librarians have played a major role in informing the UK’s pandemic response at a national level, aiding public health decision-making and facilitating partnership working across sectors.

Librarians from Public Health Scotland’s (PHS) knowledge services have worked closely with PHS colleagues to coordinate Scotland’s response to the pandemic. Their work included the creation of daily Covid-19 updates for PHS’ guidance teams, distributing the latest and most relevant research on key topics, and adapting these updates in line with PHS’ changing priorities (for example as their focus shifted from virus transmission to vaccine efficacy). Librarians at PHS have also been involved in creating evidence summaries to support specific Covid-19 research projects, such as an investigation into the relationship between Covid-19 and vitamin D. The evidence gathered by knowledge services helped PHS to formulate their response on the issue and make national recommendations relating to vitamin D intake.

On 12 July 2021, PHS launched their Covid-19 research repository, which is managed and maintained by the library team and collects, preserves, and provides access to Scottish Covid-19 research. This project aims to support policymakers, researchers, and the public by bringing together Scotland’s Covid-19 research in one place and making it easily accessible for all who need it. It is also aimed at reducing duplication of effort, which health librarians had recognised as a concern during the pandemic.

Similarly, Public Health England (PHE)’s library aimed to tackle the duplication of effort across England by creating their ‘Finding the evidence: Coronavirus’ page which gathers emerging key research and evidence related to Covid-19 and makes it accessible in one place. Many resources on the site are freely available and include a wide range of resources including training materials, and search and fact checking guidance.

Health libraries have also been informing decision-making across the social care and third sectors, with NES librarians facilitating digital access to research and evidence via the Knowledge Network and Social Services Knowledge Scotland (SSKS), and providing training and webinars to help users make the most of such services. NES librarians have been involved in partnership working with organisations such as the Care Inspectorate, SCVO, and Alliance.

Keeping the public informed

A key challenge for health librarians during the pandemic has been in dealing with the information overload and spread of harmful misinformation around Covid-19.

Library and information professionals have had a key role to play in providing trustworthy information to patients and the public, helping people to make informed choices about their health and wellbeing. As previously mentioned, librarians have helped agencies like PHS to deliver clear, meaningful, and authoritative guidance to the public, as well as making up-to-date and reliable Covid-19 research centralised and widely accessible to the public.

The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasises the importance of health literacy in enabling  populations to “play an active role in improving their own health, engage successfully with community action for health, and push governments to meet their responsibilities in addressing health and health equity”. Health librarians have been at the forefront of efforts to promote and improve health literacy during the pandemic.

NES’ knowledge services have been delivering training and webinars to health and social care staff on how to improve people’s health literacy, and health librarians working with HEE have created targeted Covid-19 resources for specific groups such as older people and children and young people.

Final thoughts

Clearly, the work of health librarians has been crucial to the UK’s pandemic response and recovery so far, and advocacy campaigns like #HealthLibrariansAddValue are central to highlighting this important work and demonstrating its impact.

Looking forward, it is clear that innovative and high-quality knowledge services will be essential in a post-pandemic world as they continue to aid recovery, promote health literacy and support the health and social care workforce. As set out in HEE’s Knowledge for Healthcare framework, investment is required at a national and local level to build expertise and support the digital knowledge infrastructure which will be required.


Further reading: more on health from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Keeping our finger on the pulse: recent additions to our collection across health

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The health and care landscape has been changed in unprecedented ways over the past year. The coronavirus pandemic has not only highlighted strains within the system and required a response to a public health emergency unlike anything else that has been seen for decades, it has also provided an opportunity to push innovation in areas like digital infrastructure and partnership working, and encouraged decision makers to look at public health as an essential part of policy making in all areas.

The Knowledge Exchange database is full of reports, articles and documents which offer insight into these themes, published by organisations from across the heath and social care landscape. In this blog post, we’re highlighting some recent additions to our collection and some of the big themes being discussed within the sector.

Covid-19, “building back better” and a “health in all policies” approach

In March 2021 think tank IPPR published their report State of health and care: the NHS Long Term Plan after Covid-19. The recommendations form a £12 billion blueprint to ‘build back better’ in health and care and the report calls for an adaptation of the NHS Long Term Plan published in 2019 focusing on cancer, mental health, cardiovascular disease and multimorbidity. The authors believe the Long Term Plan needs to change to ‘build back better’ health and care post-pandemic, in relation to: ensuring a sustainable workforce; resourcing the NHS to deliver transformation; empowering integration; upgrading the digital NHS; funding and reforming social care; and levelling up the nation’s health.

Another report, from the Local Government Association (LGA), published in September 2020, provides specific guidance to local authority councillors on ways to improve the approach to population health and use of public health resources in dealing with the pandemic, highlighting the Health in All Policies (HiAP) approach to addressing health inequalities and improving wellbeing. There are a number of other resources which look at public health approaches to tackling other areas of policy such as youth violence and urban regeneration.

Build back fairer: the Covid-19 Marmot Review: the pandemic, socioeconomic and health inequalities in England, published by the Health Foundation and the Institute of Health Equity examines inequalities in coronavirus mortality, looks at the effects that the pandemic, and the societal response, have had on social and economic inequalities, the effects on mental and physical health, and the likely effects on health inequalities in the future. The report assesses the inequalities in the risk of COVID-19 and mortality and explores the impact of containment on inequalities in the social determinants of health, in terms of: early life; education; children and young people; employment and working conditions; a healthy standard of living; healthy and sustainable places and communities; and healthy behaviours.

Mental health

Mental health services have been under significant pressure in the UK for a number of years now, with children’s services (CAMHS) particularly stretched as the number of specialist practitioners is limited. The coronavirus pandemic has, according to many specialists, exacerbated existing pressures and placed even more demand on services. In April 2021 the All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood published a report: The COVID generation: a mental health pandemic in the making – the impact on the mental health of children and young people during and after the COVID-19 pandemic  which explores a range of themes in relation to the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of children and young people. The report presents evidence from a range of sources on the potential implications of the pandemic on young people’s mental health and discusses the impact of school closures on children’s future health and well-being.

The Children’s Commissioner for England recently published a report  which looks at the progress made in improving children’s mental health services in England, and  the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of children. The report also examines the provision and accessibility of children’s mental health services in 2019/20, finding that access is still not adequate and not improving as quickly as expected.          

The other pandemic: the impact of Covid-19 on Britain’s mental health  explores how the mental health of people in the UK has been affected by the pandemic, drawing on a survey of over 4000 people. It describes the different experiences of groups across society and the highlights the disproportionate mental health impact on people who are exposed to higher levels of social deprivation, as well as on women, younger people and those who live alone.

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Structural reform

In August 2020 the Health Devolution Commission launched its final report, Building back health and prosperity. Among other themes, such as taking a “health in all policies approach”, the report found that devolving accountability and power to a more local level creates the potential to understand communities and places better, and to meet their needs.

One of the main focuses of the health and social care white paper published in February 2021 is around developing an integrated health and social care system and taking a ‘population health’ preventative approach to healthcare, while a report from the NHS confederation recommends a reformation of the framework for elective care and increased healthcare funding.

Digital transformation

Even before the pandemic, The King’s Fund was publishing widely on digital transformation. But their recent report Understanding factors that enabled digital service change in general practice during the Covid-19 pandemic  looks specifically at the impact of the pandemic on accelerating the transformation of the delivery of some services by GPs to focus more on digital delivery and whether this change can (or should) be sustained once the pandemic is over. It explores the challenges around trust, staff and patient digital literacy and the evaluation of digital tools in practice. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) published their own review of AI and healthcare , providing an overview of AI in the healthcare system and its potential impacts on the cost and quality of healthcare, and on the workforce.

Final thoughts

The landscape of health and care is changing. The Covid-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented demands on a system which was already facing significant challenges. While in some instances this has led to innovation and accelerated the pace of change, it has also exposed some of the significant weaknesses of the system.

This blog highlights some of the big topics the sector is currently grappling with, but there is more available for TKE members on our database. Members can also sign up to receive our health Topic Update, which will provide fortnightly email updates of items recently added to the collection in health, easily allowing you to stay up to date.

If your organisation is not a member of the Knowledge Exchange and you would like more information, please contact us.


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Devolving health and social care in England: an opportunity to transform how we approach health and care?

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In recent years, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has increasingly encouraged the transfer of powers over health and social care in England away from central government and towards city regions. These bodies, DHSC argues, are uniquely placed to understand the challenges faced by their local populations, the capacities and expertise of their local NHS and to develop plans for the future. This should enable them to approach health at a local level, promoting increased delivery of care in the community, and a greater integration between health and care services.

Putting local places at the centre of “Build back better”

In August 2020 the Health Devolution Commission launched its final report, Building back health and prosperity. Among other themes, like taking a “health in all policies approach”, the report found that devolving accountability and power to a more local level creates the potential to understand communities and places better, and to meet their needs.

The NHS Long Term Plan has also outlined a new direction for the NHS based on the principle of collaboration rather than competition, and the introduction of new structures such as Integrated Care Systems, Integrated Care Providers and Primary Care Networks. These partnerships bring health and social care commissioners together to plan and deliver integrated and person-centred care.

In the context of “building back better”, awareness of how our external experiences and contexts impact our health and wellbeing (for example the impact of poverty, deprivation, housing, and unemployment) is increasingly important.

Beyond the immediate recovery from the pandemic, health devolution could be one way of opening up the possibility of integrating not just disparate services within the NHS – or even NHS and social care services in a locality – but bringing together in a combined strategy and structure all of the services, systems and partners in a community that have an impact upon the health of a local population, and the care services to better meet their health needs.

“It doesn’t have to be a battle”- partnerships and balance are the key to effective devolution

The move away from centralised processes and organisations towards more local ones can sometimes be portrayed as a rejection or an attempt to “break free” from central government. However, practitioners have been increasingly stressing that devolution does not mean complete independence, and that while improved local decision making will improve outcomes for local people, that does not mean that the need for some centralised decision making is completely removed.

On the contrary, some decisions should and will be taken at a national level, but the ability to distribute power, decision making and accountability to a local level will have significant positive impacts for improving “citizen voice”, transparency and co-production in decision making.

This is where the Health Devolution Commission argues that balance, communication, and partnership between the local and national infrastructure needs to be aligned so that devolution can be successful and sustainable. Integrated planning and management of long-term health care strategies is important, as is the ability to bring citizens and local decision makers into discussions about national health policy.

The Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector, including patient voice and carers organisations, also plays an important role in linking together services and communities. As well as partnering to deliver services, these organisations also often offer vital bridges between statutory systems and those communities which can often be excluded from engagement with services or who can find it harder to access them. The commission also emphasised the importance of bringing these bodies into the conversation on devolution going forwards as they will be invaluable partners in the process.

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DevoManc providing the blueprint?

In 2016, as part of a pilot, control of the health and social care budget for Greater Manchester was transferred to a partnership team in the area comprising local authorities, clinical commissioning groups, NHS foundation trusts and NHS England.

The combined authority identified that the health of its population was one of the key obstacles to its economic growth. By relating the concept of regional economic prosperity with health, they began to see health in a completely different way – as part of a wider plan and an investment for growth, not a burden.

“It’s better to have decisions made locally, because local people understand what local problems are and what Greater Manchester needs. We need to work together.”

Lord Peter Smith, Chair of Greater Manchester Health and Care Board

The Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership are working in partnership with other sectors including education and housing to support everything from good eating habits and exercise to education and everyone’s ability to earn a decent living. The partnership is taking action to give children the start they need, support independence in old age, tackle illness earlier on and even prevent it altogether by improving the lifestyles of local people.

Other areas of England are also currently undertaking their own health devolution journeys, including London, West Yorkshire and Harrogate, as well as some other combined authority areas. However, one of the big challenges is that currently, while we can learn from the experiences of those already on their devolution journey, there is no common, consistent or comprehensive understanding of what good heath devolution looks like, full evaluations of the benefits it brings or overarching strategies on how it should be developed.

This is something that will need to be addressed if health devolution is to be successfully rolled out across England.

Final thoughts

Devolution of health to a more local level provides an opportunity to tackle the big public health challenges of our time at source, and to create a better, more joined up community health ecosystem. It also provides the chance to share and collaborate, learning from best practice and delivering improved health and social care services at a regional and national level.

It has been suggested that the coronavirus pandemic, while traumatic in more ways than one for the NHS and its staff, may provide the re-setting point needed to implement some of the changes proposed in relation to greater health devolution. Proponents of this view argue that improved funding to support effective and high quality care, improved integration between health and social care, and greater positioning of health and assessment of the impact of decisions on health across all policy areas, should be among the top priorities as the country looks to recover from the pandemic.

As the Health Devolution Commission underlines:

The pandemic has shown we cannot go back to the way things were. We need a ‘new normal’ and we believe that comprehensive health devolution is the only viable solution to the challenges the country now faces.”


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The Covid-19 knock-on: public health and the impact of delays in non-urgent treatment and diagnosis

Since the beginning of the pandemic, concerns have been raised about the wider public health impacts of coronavirus. In addition to strains on acute NHS care services on the frontline, there are warnings about the additional public health impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures like screening and routine medical care in the form of pre-planned operations for long-term chronic and non-urgent conditions.

At the outbreak of the pandemic many hospitals took the decision to delay or stop entirely routine pre-planned surgeries and preventative screening and diagnostics. Some even suspended treatment for more urgent care like cancer treatment on a short term basis. While many of these services have resumed since the beginning of the pandemic, albeit with a backlog of patients now to be seen, significant strain on the NHS as we come into the winter months because of  coronavirus is still anticipated. As a result, many hospitals are not working at full capacity in order to prepare for potential increases in admissions due to coronavirus or staff shortages over the winter.

In many areas this has led to a backlog of care, both for those patients already in the system awaiting routine surgeries, as well as those who are yet to be diagnosed but would have been through preventative screening programmes run by the NHS.

Delays in healthcare and routine screening programmes 

Even before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, many NHS hospital trusts were under criticism because of the significant length of waiting times for people who required routine operations, which in some parts of the UK can be as long as three years. Doctors across the UK are now warning that these delays could be increased further unless the NHS receives additional support to increase capacity across all areas of care  not just urgent care in the coming months.

Data released by NHS England in October 2020 showed the numbers waiting over a year for hospital treatment have hit a 12-year high, with almost 2 million patients waiting more than the target time of 18 weeks for routine care.

It has been suggested that delays in diagnosis and routine treatments could lead to an increased number of hospitalisations further down the line, requiring higher levels of care, longer lengths of stay, and increased hospital readmissions.

A reluctance to visit hospitals and use primary care services

Government messages to ‘protect the NHS’ may have had the unintended consequence of discouraging people from seeking urgent medical care when it was required for fear of using services unnecessarily or for fear of contracting the virus when attending hospital or primary care settings.

Research from the Health Foundation found that there had been a significant reduction in the number of GP consultations since the start of the pandemic which has led to concerns about the care of non-covid patients, patients with long term health conditions and also the potential for delayed diagnosis. Primary care consultations also reduced and have remained low consistently since the beginning of lockdown.

Figures have also shown a reduction in the number of referrals, medical tests, new prescriptions and immunisations. While some of these reductions are the result of advice to delay routine referrals to free up capacity for hospitals to deal with the potentially large number of cases of Covid-19, routine referrals have still not recovered to pre-lockdown levels.

 

A potential future crisis for the NHS and a ticking time bomb for public health

Doctors are now warning that the treatment backlog which has been caused by the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to diagnostic delays and screening programmes, may lead to a future crisis of care or significant delays in care for people waiting to receive more routine treatment.

Delays in care have not only been reported in cases of physical health. There have also been significant delays in referrals for those seeking treatment for a mental health condition, an area of the NHS which was already facing significant delays in referral and transfer of care even before the pandemic. Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this. People with mental health conditions may have been unable to access appropriate support through primary care pathways, which could potentially impact on their long term health and care.

Finally, concerns have been raised about the wider social determinants of health such as employment and poverty. Public Health England (PHE) published a monitoring tool which looks at the wider impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on population health, and it is likely that the knock-on impact of the virus could have far reaching consequences for public health in the future as the health implications of lockdown, lack of social interaction and rising unemployment could be significant. 

Where next?

While the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic for the NHS will not be going away anytime soon, it is clear that it will be necessary for the NHS and other supporting services to act now to prevent a longer term public health crisis. It is critical that we not only focus on the acute care of Covid-19 patients, but also proactively manage patients without Covid-19, particularly those with time-sensitive, complex and long term conditions who are postponing their care. We must also consider the knock-on impacts of delayed diagnosis for those people who missed out on routine screening or who were unable or too afraid to visit their GP or hospital. This is important not only to sustain health and life, but to preserve hospital and NHS capacity in the future.


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How the COVID-19 homelessness response shows opportunities for future progress

Before the UK entered lockdown in March 2020, there were already discussions around how the spread of COVID-19 would impact some of the most vulnerable people in our society. There was an acute awareness not only of the significant levels of homelessness in our towns and cities but that the number of people who needed support was growing at an alarming rate. Strategies for prevention and outreach programmes to help break the cycle of homelessness through a network of support systems for homeless people were helping to a certain extent in some areas, but the problem was (is) chronic and the concern among people who worked in, and had experience of, the sector in relation to the potential impact of COVID-19 was growing.

Homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic

Surprisingly though, in many areas the response to support the UK’s homeless populations was swift, definitive and all encompassing. Partnerships were formed with local hotel chains – the GLA partnership with multiple hotel groups as part of the Pan London Placement scheme is probably the best publicised but individual arrangements have sprung up across the country and people were moved from the street into accommodation which was self-contained and would allow them to effectively isolate if they showed any symptoms of COVID-19.

In March, minister Robert Jennick announced £3.2 million of funding for councils to help them protect local rough sleepers from the pandemic and MHCLG, councils, the voluntary sector and those who work within homelessness outreach specifically have all mobilised to form an effective network of support for many people who had previously been sleeping on the streets.

The response to moving those who were sleeping rough off the streets has been unprecedented, as is the volume of people who have been helped. Many people have been accommodated regardless of their “local connection” or their “recourse to public funds”, something which previously was a significant barrier to many people being housed in temporary accommodation by their local authority.

A new wave of homelessness?

However despite the significant progress made, there are growing concerns about a “second wave of homelessness”- people who become homeless off the back of the stagnation and collapse of some areas of the economy, particularly those in low paid and precarious work i.e. hospitality and retail sector. Additionally, there are signs that some especially vulnerable groups have not engaged with the process or that some people have became homeless after the initial offer of support was rolled out. These include people from migrant backgrounds, and people with acute and severe mental ill health.

Things can’t go back to the way they were

One thing is clear, according to professionals, things can’t be allowed to return to the way they were. In some instances this is for practical reasons, and in other instances because we have been able to see what it is possible to achieve when people co-operate and there is a collective will to progress.

The use of communal shelters, one of the main ways of delivering emergency accommodation for many years may have to stop, or at least be re-organised to avoid multiple people sharing facilities like bathrooms or sleeping in rooms with multiple beds. A move towards more “pod style” contained living may be a way forward, but it will take a shift in design to accommodate people safely in the future.

The response has shown that it is vital to develop links between housing and health, and that the integration of services with public health to create wrap-around care (which is something which is currently being co-ordinated in response to the pandemic) should be maintained going forward.

The pandemic response has also shown that multiple organisations can work well effectively together and that the red tape, perceived layers of bureaucracy and challenges of different ways of working can be overcome if there is collective understanding and will. These barriers can be overcome to create really effective and much needed services and support for some of our most vulnerable citizens.

Concerns have been raised around future funding, and in particular the risks of funding being stopped abruptly or the supply being removed at short notice, for example if hotels re-open and councils then struggle to identify appropriate accommodation for people to transition into. The sector has stressed that councils should be planning for this transition phase to prevent people returning to the streets and dis-engaging with services.

Opportunities to learn lessons

At an online event hosted by the Centre for London, which brought together professionals from within the sector in London to reflect on the response to COVID-19, somewhat surprisingly, the atmosphere was one of optimism that this could be the start of a new way of working. There is hope that a “can do” and “get things done attitude” which had been catalysed by the need for urgency because of the spread of COVID-19 can be harnessed and that this mindset should be embedded into practice going forward.

One of the main questions that appears to be raised is, if we can do it now, with such urgency, why couldn’t we do it before, and what steps need to be taken to ensure that the collective will and the government support doesn’t disappear post COVID-19? This is something local authorities, homeless outreach groups and other partners will have to grapple with over the coming weeks and months.

The response to the pandemic has been unprecedented. It has shown that with understanding, flexibility and effective partnership working to deliver coordinated services (as well as appropriate supply and funding) that tackling homelessness, or at least offering more to our homeless communities in terms of effective long term support, can be achieved.

There is a collective sense within the sector that the steps forward taken as a result of this pandemic should not be allowed to regress in the future, but should be strengthened and built upon to provide more effective support going forward for homeless communities across the UK.


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Read some of our other blogs on housing and homelessness:

An app a day … how m-health could revolutionise our engagement with the NHS

It seems like almost every day now we see in the news and read in newspapers about the increasing pressures on our NHS, strains on resources and the daily challenges facing already overworked GP staff.

Mobile health applications (m-health apps) are increasingly being integrated into practice and are now being used to perform some tasks which would have traditionally been performed by general practitioners (GPs), such as those involved in promoting health, preventing disease, diagnosis, treatment, monitoring, and signposting to other health and support services.

How m-health is transforming patient interactions with the NHS

In 2015 International Longevity Centre research found some distinct demographic divides on health information seeking behaviour. While 50% of those aged 25-34 preferred to receive health information online, only 15% of those aged 65 and over preferred the internet. The internet remained the favourite source of health information for all age groups younger than 55. And while not specifically referring to apps, the fact that many people in this research expressed a preference to seek health information online indicates that there is potential for wider use of effective, and NHS approved health apps.

A report published in 2019 by Reform highlighted the unique opportunity that m-health offered in the treatment and management of mental health conditions. The report found that in the short to medium-term, much of the potential of apps and m-health lies in relieving the pressure on frontline mental health services by giving practitioners more time to spend on direct patient care and providing new ways to deliver low-intensity, ongoing support. In the long-term, the report suggests, data-driven technologies could lead to more preventative and precise care by allowing for new types of data-collection and analysis to enhance understandings of mental health.

M-health, e-health and telecare are also potentially important tools in the delivery of rural care, particularly to those who are elderly or who live in remote parts of the UK. This enables them to submit relevant readings to a GP or hospital consultant without having to travel to see them in person and allowing them to receive updates, information and advice on their condition without having to travel to consult a doctor or nurse face-to-face. However, some have highlighted that this removal of personal contact could leave some patients feeling isolated, unable to ask questions and impact on the likelihood of carrying out treatment, particularly among older people, if they feel it has been prescribed by a “machine” and not a doctor.

Supporting people to take ownership of their own health

Research has suggested that wearable technologies, not just m-health apps, but across-the-board, including devices like “fitbits”, are acting as incentives to help people self-regulate and promote healthier activities such as more walking or drinking more water. One study found that different tracking and monitoring tools that collect and analyse health and wellness data over time can inform consumers of their baseline activity level, encourage personal engagement in health and wellbeing, and ultimately lead to positive behavioural change. Another report from the International Longevity Centre also highlights the potential impact of apps on preventative healthcare; promoting behaviour change and encouraging people to make healthier choices such as stopping smoking or reducing alcohol intake.

Home testing kits for conditions such as bowel cancer and remote sensors to monitor blood sugar levels in type 1 diabetics are also becoming more commonplace as methods to help people take control of monitoring their own health. Roll-outs of blood pressure and heart rhythm monitors enable doctors to see results through an integrated tablet, monitor a patient’s condition remotely, make suggestions on changes to medication or pass comments on to patients directly through an email or integrated chat system, without the patient having to attend a clinic in person.

Individual test kits from private sector firms, including “Monitor My Health” are now also increasingly available for people to purchase. People purchase and complete the kits, which usually include instructions on home blood testing for conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol and vitamin D deficiency. The collected samples are then returned via post, analysed in a laboratory and the results communicated to the patient via an app, with no information about the test stored on their personal medical records. While the app results will recommend if a trip to see a GP is necessary, there is no obligation on the part of the company involved or the patient to act on the results if they choose not to. The kits are aimed at “time-poor” people over the age of 16, who want to “take control of their own healthcare”, according to the kit’s creator, but some have suggested that instead of improving the patient journey by making testing more convenient, lack of regulation could dilute the quality of testing Removing the “human element”, they warn, particularly from initial diagnosis consultations, could lead to errors.

But what about privacy?

Patient-driven healthcare which is supported and facilitated by the use of e-health technologies and m-health apps is designed to support an increased level of information flow, transparency, customisation, collaboration and patient choice and responsibility-taking, as well as quantitative, predictive and preventive aspects for each user. However, it’s not all positive, and concerns are already being raised about the collection and storage of data, its use and the security of potentially very sensitive personal data.

Data theft or loss is one of the major security concerns when it comes to using m-health apps. However, another challenge is the unwitting sharing of data by users, which despite GDPR requirements can happen when people accept terms and conditions or cookie notices without fully reading or understanding the consequences for their data. Some apps, for example, collect and anonymise data to feed into further research or analytics about the use of the app or sell it on to third parties for use in advertising.

Final thoughts

The integration of mobile technologies and the internet into medical diagnosis and treatment has significant potential to improve the delivery of health and care across the UK, easing pressure on frontline staff and services and providing more efficient care, particularly for those people who are living with long-term conditions which require monitoring and management.

However, clinicians and researchers have been quick to emphasise that while there are significant benefits to both the doctor and the patient, care must be taken to ensure that the integrity and trust within the doctor-patient relationship is maintained, and that people are not forced into m-health approaches without feeling supported to use the technology properly and manage their conditions effectively. If training, support and confidence of users in the apps is not there, there is the potential for the roll-out of apps to have the opposite effect, and lead to more staff answering questions on using the technology than providing frontline care.


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Figuring it out: five issues emerging from the Scottish draft budget

The week before Christmas might not seem an ideal time to be mulling over the minutiae of economic forecasts and the implications of tax changes. But on Monday morning, the Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI) review of last week’s Scottish draft budget attracted a big turnout, and helped make sense of the numbers announced by Scotland’s Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay.

Here are some of the key issues to emerge from yesterday morning’s presentations.

  1. Growth: degrees of pessimism

Last month, the UK Office for Budget Responsibility revised downwards its growth forecast for the UK economy to less than 2%. The FAI, meanwhile, has forecast a slightly lower growth rate for the Scottish economy of between 1% and 1.5%. However, the independent Scottish Fiscal Commission (SFC) is much more pessimistic, forecasting growth in the Scottish economy of less than 1% up to 2021. If the SFC’s forecast turns out to be accurate, this would mean the longest run of growth below 1% in Scotland for 60 years.

Dr Graeme Roy, director of the FAI, suggested that the SFC’s gloomy outlook is based on the view that the Scottish working-age population is projected to decline over the next decade. In addition, the SFC also believes that the slowdown in productivity, which has been a blight on the Scottish economy since the 2008 financial crisis, will continue.

  1. Income tax rises: reality v perception

Mr Mackay proposed big changes in Scotland’s tax system, with five income tax bands stretching from 19p to 46p. While these measures attracted the biggest headlines for the budget, the FAI believes that most people will see little meaningful impact in their overall tax bill (relative to income). Charlotte Barbour, director of taxation at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, also suggested that the tax changes are unlikely to result in any significant behavioural changes in the way people pay tax in Scotland. And, as has been noted elsewhere, high taxation does not necessarily lead to unsuccessful economies.

However, as the FAI highlighted, perception is important, and if Scotland comes to be seen as the most highly taxed part of the UK, this could have serious implications for business start-ups and inward investment.

  1. Taxation: two systems, multiple implications

Charlotte Barbour also highlighted some of the implications of the tax changes in Scotland that haven’t featured widely in press coverage. How the changes interact with areas such as Gift Aid, pensions, the married couple’s tax allowance, Universal Credit and tax credits will need careful examination in the coming weeks.

  1. Public spending: additional resources, but constrained settlements

The FAI’s David Eiser noted that Mr Mackay was able to meet his government’s commitments to maintain real terms spending on the police and provide £180m for the Attainment Fund. He also announced an additional £400m resource spending on the NHS. But these settlements are constrained in the context of the Scottish Government’s pay policy,

Mr Mackay’s plan offers public sector workers such as nurses, firefighters and teachers earning less than £30,000 pounds a year a 3% pay rise, and those earning more than that a 2% rise. For the NHS alone, this could cost as much as £170m.

In addition, analysis published yesterday by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICE) has estimated that, if local authorities were to match the Scottish Government’s pay policy, this would cost around £150m in 2018-19.

  1. The budget’s impact on poverty

If the growth forecasts are correct, even by 2022 real household incomes in Scotland will be below 2007 levels. Dr Jim McCormick, Associate Director Scotland to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, looked at the Scottish budget in the context of poverty, and suggested that three principles need to be addressed before the budget can be finalised: there are opportunities both to increase participation by minority groups in employment and to improve progression in low-wage sectors, such as hospitality and retail; energy efficiency is one important way of lowering household bills and improving housing quality in the private rented sector; and options such as topping up child tax credits and more generous Council Tax rebates are better at reducing poverty than cutting income tax.

Finalising the budget

As all of the speakers noted, the Scottish draft budget is not a done deal. The minority Scottish National Party government in the Scottish Parliament needs the support of at least one other party to ensure its measures are adopted. The most likely partner is the Scottish Green Party, which has indicated that the budget cannot pass as it stands, but could support the government if an additional £150m is committed to local government.

It took until February this year before the Scottish Government’s 2016 draft budget could be passed. Time will tell whether a budget announced shortly before Christmas 2017 can finally be agreed before Valentine’s Day 2018.

The complete collection of slides presented at the Fraser of Allander Institute’s Scottish budget review are available to download here.


Our blog post on the Fraser of Allander Institute’s review of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s 2017 Autumn Budget is available here.

Joining up housing and mental health

The role of housing goes far beyond physical shelter and safety. It introduces people to a community to which they can belong, a space which is their own, a communal setting where they can make friends, form relationships and a place where they can go for support, social interaction and reduce feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Housing  stable, safe housing  also provides a springboard for people to begin to re-integrate with society. An address allows them to register with services, including claiming benefits, registering at a local job centre, registering with a GP, and applying for jobs.

Housing and health, both physical and mental, are inextricably linked. A 2015 blog from the Mental Health Foundation put the relationship between housing and health in some of the clearest terms:

“Homelessness and mental health often go hand in hand, and can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Having a mental health problem can create the circumstances which can cause a person to become homeless in the first place. Yet poor housing or homelessness can also increase the chances of developing a mental health problem, or exacerbate an existing condition.”

Single homeless people are significantly more likely to suffer from mental illness than the general population. And as a result of being homeless they are also far more likely to rely on A&E services, only visiting when they reach crisis point, rather than being treated in a local setting by a GP. They are also more likely to be re-admitted. This high usage is also costly, and increasingly calls are being made for services to be delivered in a more interconnected way, ensuring that housing is high on the list of priorities for those teams helping people to transition from hospital back into the community.

Not just those who are homeless being failed

However, transitioning from hospital into suitable housing after a mental health hospital admission is not just a challenge for homeless people. It is also the case that people are being discharged from hospital to go back into settings that are unsuitable. Housing which is unsafe, in poor condition, in unsafe locations or in locations away from family and social networks can also have a significant impact on the ability of people to recover and prevent readmission.

Councils are facing an almost constant struggle to house people in appropriate accommodation. However, finding a solution to safe, affordable and suitable housing is vital. Reinvesting in social housing is a core strategy councils are considering going forward to try and relieve some of the pressure and demand. Gender and age specific approaches, which consider the specific needs of women, potentially with children, or old and young people and their specific needs would also go a long way to creating long term secure housing solutions which would then also impact on the use of frontline NHS services (by reducing the need for them because more could be treated in the community). Suitable housing also has the potential to improve employment prospects or increase the uptake of education or training among younger people with a mental illness. It would also provide stability and security, long term, to allow people  to make significant lifestyle changes and reduce their risk of homelessness in the future.

A new relationship for housing and health

A number of recommendations have been made for services. Many have called for the introduction of multi-disciplinary teams within the NHS, recruited from different backgrounds, not only to create partnerships with non-NHS teams, but also to act as a transitional care team, to ensure that care is transferred and dealt with in a community setting in an appropriate way, and to ensure housing is both adequate and reflects the needs of those who are most vulnerable.

In June 2017 the King’s Fund held an online seminar to discuss how greater integration between housing and mental health services could help accelerate discharge from hospital and reduce the rates of readmission for people suffering from mental illness. The panel included Claire Murdoch, National Mental Health Director at NHS England and Rachael Byrne, Executive Director, New Models of Care at Home Group.

Final thoughts

Increasingly the important link between housing and health is being recognised and developments are being made in acknowledging that both effective treatment and a stable environment are vital to helping people with mental illness recover and re-integrate back into their community, improving their life chances and reducing the potential for relapse.

Housing can be an area of life which can have a significant impact on mental health. It can cause stress, and the financial burden, possibility of being made homeless, or being placed in temporary accommodation can have a significant and lasting negative effect on people’s mental health. However, safe and stable housing can also have a significant positive impact on mental health, providing stability, privacy, dignity and a sense of belonging.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments health, social and community care are interesting our research team.

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also be interested in our other articles on health care and reablement care

Why a holistic approach to public health and social care needs a wider evidence base … and how Social Policy and Practice can help

SPP screenshot2016 has been described as “make or break time for the NHS”, and with pressures on finances increasing, social care and public health are in the spotlight. Around £1 in every £5 of NHS spending is estimated to be the result of ill health attributable to the big five risk factors of smoking, alcohol, poor diet, obesity and inactivity. Investing in prevention, and understanding the complex wider community and social factors that lead to poor health, is therefore important. In cash-strapped local authorities however, investment in preventative projects can be sidelined in the face of tackling acute issues.

Prevention and behaviour change are linked

Recent health policy has included an expectation that individuals should take greater responsibility for their own health. But where we are talking about behaviour change, there is no quick fix. Glib use of the term ‘nudge’ to promote change can suggest that laziness is the only issue. However, research such as that by the King’s Fund has highlighted that motivation and confidence are essential if people are to successfully modify their health behaviours.

Practitioners within the field of both public health and social care need help understanding what works – but as two great recent blogs from the Alliance for Useful Evidence noted, change can be achieved in multiple ways and evidence shouldn’t be used to prove a service works but as part of a journey of improvement and learning.

We talk about the “caring professions”, but it seems that it can be difficult to maintain a focus on the ‘person not the patient’ when budgets are being cut. Well-reported issues such as the rise in the use of 15-minute home care appointments are just one symptom of this. More generally, making time to consider alternative approaches or learn from good practice elsewhere can be hard. That is where having access to a trusted database can help.

Trusted source of research and ideas

The Alliance for Useful Evidence, most recently in its practice guide to using research evidence, has highlighted the importance of using trusted sources rather than “haphazard online searches”. One of these resources is Social Policy and Practice, a database which we have contributed to for twelve years.

“SPP is useful for any professional working in the field of social care or social work who can’t get easy access to a university library.” Alliance for Useful Evidence, 2016

The partners who contribute to the database – Centre for Policy on Ageing, Idox Information Service, National Children’s Bureau, the NSPCC and the Social Care Institute for Excellence – are all committed to sharing their focused collections with the wider world of researchers and to influence policy and practice.

Social Policy and Practice is the UK’s only national social science database embracing social care, social policy, social services, and public policy. It boasts over 400,000 references to papers, books and reports and about 30% of the total content is grey literature.

Social Policy and Practice has been identified by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a key resource for those involved in research into health and social care. And importantly, it supports the ability to take a holistic approach to improving outcomes, by covering social issues such as poor housing, regeneration, active ageing, resilience and capacity building.


Find out more about the development of the Social Policy and Practice database in this article from CILIP Update. Update is the leading publication for the library, information and knowledge management community and they’ve given us permission to share this article.

If you are interested in using the Social Policy and Practice (SPP) database for evidence and research in health and social care, please visit www.spandp.net for more information and to request a free trial.

Read some of our other blogs on evidence use in public policy:

Should the UK introduce a tax on sugar?

An assortment of liquorice allsorts sweets.

by Stacey Dingwall

Recent months have seen two enquiries to our Ask a Researcher service for evidence on sugar consumption in the UK. Namely: should this be taxed?

Sugar has become somewhat of a villain in the UK, with magazine articles, research and governments all telling us that we should be greatly reducing, or even eradicating completely, our consumption of added sugars in particular. The week beginning 30th of November even saw the first National Sugar Awareness Week, part of a campaign to encourage the government to establish a sugar reduction programme in the UK. However, is a ‘sugar tax’ really necessary?

Sugar consumption: a public health issue?

According to the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), absolutely. Last month, they published a review of how to tackle obesity in the UK, which included the introduction of a sugar tax. The report notes that, according to the latest forecasts, half of all adults in the UK are expected to be classed as obese by 2050. Key to reversing this trend, it is argued, is to tackle issues around diet and nutrition among children, who are now spending double the amount of time per day in front of screens than children in 1995 (something that has been shown to increase cravings for food and drink, but not for nutritionally sound items). Alongside other developed nations, the UK is also seeing an ever increasing rate of consumption of high-sugar carbonated drinks.

While the RSPH recommends placing restrictions, or ending, the use of advertising and sponsorship by junk food and drinks companies around family and sporting events, it also argues that this is not enough to tackle the country’s obesity problem. The RSPH supports the introduction of a tax on sugary drinks of 20%, or 20p per litre. Their report highlights evidence which suggests that this could prevent or delay around 200,000 cases of obesity per year, and points to the experience of Mexico, who introduced a tax of 10% at the start of 2014. During that year, sales of sugary drinks declined by 6% overall, and by 9% among those living in the most deprived areas of the country (the demographic group most likely to be obese).

What does the government think?

After a delay, the UK government published Public Health England’s (PHE) review of the evidence for action with regards to sugar reduction in October. The report:

  • agrees that too much sugar is consumed in the UK
  • favours a reduction in advertising to children
  • recommends the introduction of a tax on full sugar soft drinks of 10-20%

This, combined with a range of other measures, it is argued, could save the NHS £500 million per year. The PHE recommendation was also supported by the House of Commons Health Committee, in their recently published Childhood obesity – brave and bold action report. Having heard evidence from parties including Sustain and Jamie Oliver, a key figure in the campaign for the introduction of a sugar tax, the Committee recommended that such a levy should be introduced at 20%, in order to achieve maximum impact.

The Prime Minister, however, is still not convinced, stating that he believes there are “more effective” ways of tackling obesity. The government is due to publish a strategy on childhood obesity in the New Year.

What does the evidence say?

A number of countries have implemented a form of taxation on sugar or saturated fats. These include:

  • a tax on saturated fats in Denmark
  • Finland’s tax on sweets, ice cream and soft drinks
  • Hungary’s public health product tax
  • France’s tax on sugar- and artificially-sweetened beverages

According to a review of using price policies such as these to promote healthier diets by the World Health Organization, food pricing policies are feasible, and can influence consumption and purchasing patterns as intended, with a significant impact on important dietary and health-related behaviour. Crucially, however, the same review notes a lack of formal evaluation in this area.

A report published earlier this year by the activist group Taxpayers’ Union of New Zealand, Fizzed out: why a sugar tax won’t curb obesity,  questioned the validity of nutrition related taxes. Reviewing the experience of Mexico, they suggested that the reduction in consumption of sugary drinks following the introduction of an excise tax of one peso per litre in January 2014 had been overplayed.

It’s also the case that the Danish tax on saturated fats was repealed by the government after only one year. This was due to a number of economic impacts that quickly became apparent after the tax was implemented, and resulted in plans for similar taxes to be abandoned. In fact, fat consumption in Denmark has been on a downward trend for some time now, therefore no tax incentive was required. And according to the Danish minister of finance, “to tax food for public health reasons [is] misguided at best and may be counter‐productive at worst”.

Whether the UK Prime Minister will be swayed on this matter remains to be seen. It’s likely that a ‘sugar tax’ will continue to be deemed too politically sensitive to introduce, especially as one in five people continue to live below the poverty line.


Related reading
Child obesity: public health or child protection issue?

Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

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