Rolling the dice with sexual health? New challenges for STI services

Today is the start of Sexual Health Week, which aims to raise awareness about services for the testing and treatment of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The UK has a strong track record in the provision of STI services. But they are now facing new challenges, including a rise in demand, significant cutbacks in public health funding, and the emergence of infections that are resistant to treatment.

A historical perspective

STIs go back a long way. Syphilis first became widely reported in Europe during the late fifteenth century, while gonorrhoea was first described 3,500 years ago. For a long time, these diseases were incurable, afflicting millions of people and leading to infertility, disfigurement and insanity. Early attempts at treatment with mercury often proved fatal. With the development of penicillin in the 1940s, along with improvements in sex education, the rates of STIs fell dramatically. More recently, new drugs have revolutionised the treatment of people living with HIV.

A growing problem

Today, the instances of STIs are rising. In Australia, rates of syphilis, gonorrhoea and chlamydia are the highest since the 1990s. It’s a similar story in the United States and Canada, while in the European Union reported syphilis cases have continued to grow. HIV remains a major public health concern, with recent data indicating a significant number of new infections in eastern Europe.

In the UK, a 2019 report by the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee found that overall STIs fell between 2013 and 2017. But more recent figures have revealed worrying developments:

  • In 2017 there was a 20% increase in cases of syphilis in England, and a 22% increase in gonorrhoea.
  • In Scotland, the number of cases of syphilis recorded has reached a 15-year high.
  • Public Health Wales has reported a 79% increase in syphilis cases in the country between 2016 and 2018.
  • The number of people in Northern Ireland diagnosed with gonorrhoea in 2018 was the highest on record.

The committee found that the impact of STIs in England is greatest among young people. Men who have sex with men are also disproportionately affected by STIs, while in black and minority ethnic populations, the rates of STI are higher than in the general population.

Along with the rise in the number of infections, the demand for sexual health services is increasing. At the same time, sexual health services say they are facing unprecedented threats from government cuts to local authority public health budgets.

In 2017, a Public Health England survey highlighted the concerns of commissioners of sexual health services. Respondents raised concerns about a decrease in capacity and an increase in demand, in both primary care and specialist services. They believe the consequences could include a worsening of health inequalities and a shift from prevention to treatment.

Debbie Laycock from the Terence Higgins Trust HIV charity told BBC News:

“The number of people accessing sexual health services has continued to rise, demand is on the increase and we’re hearing day-to-day more and more people are saying they’re being turned away from sexual health clinics. When it becomes harder to get an appointment, this is likely to deter people who don’t have symptoms, but just want a routine test. Those routine tests pick up infections at an early stage and stop them being spread to too many other people.”

Services at “breaking point”

There are concerns that this situation will worsen: from April 2020, previously ring-fenced sexual health, drug and alcohol services, which in England are funded by local authorities, will be competing for increasingly scarce funds alongside other council services such as social care.

The Health and Social Care Committee argues that budget cutbacks are not only bad for individuals’ health, but also increase overall costs to the NHS:

“Cuts to spending on sexual health, as with other areas of public health expenditure, are a false economy because they lead to higher financial costs for the wider health system. Inadequate sexual health services may also lead to serious personal long-term health consequences for individuals and jeopardise other public health campaigns such as the fight against antimicrobial resistance.”

This last point refers to a worrying new issue in the treatment of STIs. In recent months, several cases have been reported of new infections that have developed resistance to antibiotics.

Dr Tim Jinks, head of Wellcome’s Drug Resistant Infection programme, believes that increasing resistance to antibiotics will make treating and curing STIs harder:

“Untreatable cases of gonorrhoea are harbingers of a wider crisis, where common infections are harder and harder to treat. We urgently need to reduce the spread of these infections and invest in new antibiotics and treatments to replace those that no longer work.”

Some health professionals, such as Duncan Stephenson from the Royal Society for Public Health have warned that sexual health services are already at breaking point:

“With continued increases in rates of STIs such as syphilis…and the future threats posed by issues such as drug resistant gonorrhoea, the government is rolling the dice with the public’s sexual health.”

 Sexual health services for people with disabilities

This year, Sexual Health Week is focused on people with disabilities, who often face barriers that prevent access to information and support. To overcome these obstacles, sexual health services need to make changes, such as providing longer consultation periods for people with learning disabilities, and training for health professionals in advising and treating patients with special needs. With sexual health services already under pressure, the challenges of meeting the particular needs of people with disabilities are all the greater.

Final thoughts

In its report, the Commons Health and Social Care Committee recommended that Public Health England should collaborate with the sectors involved in commissioning and providing sexual health services to develop a new strategy. The report’s authors believe that this strategy:

“should help both providers and commissioners in their attempts to deliver sexual health services to a high quality and consistent level, in the face of the challenges of fragmented structures and reduced funding.

The committee also identified priority areas to be addressed by the strategy, including:

  • the provision of services which meet the needs of vulnerable populations
  • testing for the full range of sexually transmitted infections
  • access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for those at risk of contracting HIV
  • preventative interventions within all aspects of sexual health

Sexual health is an important part of physical and mental health, as well as ensuring emotional and social well-being. Modern, rapid testing can reduce the rate of onward transmission, and ensure that patients receive the right care, leading to long and healthy lives. Ensuring that those benefits continue will be the greatest challenge facing sexual health services now and in the future.


Effective clinical management for sexual health services

Effective record-keeping is an understated, but fundamentally important element of sexual health services. Increasingly, sexual health clinics are turning to electronic systems to maintain records, improve services and deliver cost savings.

Lilie is a clinical management software system specifically designed by Idox Health for sexual health services. Its electronic patient record (EPR) system provides fast access to patient information and greatly reduces administrative functions.

The system also provides sexual health services with a range of options, including:

    • patient communication via SMS
    • modules for contraceptive and reproductive health, chlamydia screening, HIV, and prescribing services
    • laboratory test results automatically received and entered into the electronic patient record

This market-leading software is now in use in more than 140 sites.

Further information about Lilie is available from Idox Health.

Treating violence as a disease: can a public health approach succeed?

Knife crime, especially deaths of young people, has been making the headlines in recent weeks. And an approach which has a proven track record in Glasgow is now being adopted by the GLA, MOPAC and the Met police to try to tackle the growing levels of violence being seen on London’s streets. Learning from the experience in Glasgow, the police and other agencies are being encouraged to see violence as a public health issue, related to poverty, wellbeing and social deprivation and which, if identified and tackled early, can be prevented.

Contagion: a new way to think about violence

The Violence Reduction Unit was pioneered by Strathclyde Police (now part of Police Scotland), working with health and social care practitioners. Launched in 2005, the approach aims to make earlier identifications of those at risk of becoming involved in violence, and to take a more holistic view of the reasons for violence of all types. The long-term strategy looked at more social and wellbeing interventions to tackle gang violence in Glasgow, which at the time was among the worst in Europe.

The VRU in Glasgow took its inspiration from a scheme in Chicago, which sought to use a World Health Organisation (WHO) approach to tackling the spread of disease but applied it to communities in the hope of curbing the significant rise in homicides in the city. The approach was three-pronged: interrupt transmission, prevent future spread, and change group norms.

In addition to changing the approach to tackling violent crime, the VRU also used a multi-agency approach, involving social services, health care, housing and employment support, to give people a route out of violence and opportunities to find work or training opportunities. One of the key elements to ensuring the VRU is successful are the relationships these people build with individuals in communities.

Identifying young people at risk

Another important aspect of the VRU strategy is to intervene early to identify children and young people who are at risk of joining gangs or becoming involved in gang violence. Research supporting the creation of the VRU suggested that violence (like a cold) is spread from person to person within a community, that violence typically leads to more violence, and that one of the key identifying factors in someone becoming a perpetrator of violent crime is first being the victim of violent crime themselves.

In order to prevent this, staff from the VRU regularly go into schools and are in touch with youth organisations. They also provide key liaison individuals called “navigators” and provide additional training to people in the community, such as dentists, vets and hairdressers to help them spot and report signs of abuse or violence.

There is also a broad view of what a culture of violence is. Work in schools focuses strongly on contemporary issues such as sexting, bullying and gender-based violence. It challenges the attitudes and beliefs that underpin such violence, and encourages young people to recognise and reject these.

A new approach to drug abuse too …?

In November 2018, the Scottish Government launched its new drug and alcohol strategy. One of the notable additions to the strategy was the acknowledgement that (like violence) drug abuse and addiction should be seen, not as a crime, but as a public health issue – an illness which people need support and treatment for.

Looking at how drug abuse is tackled within the criminal justice system and the interactions of addicts, policymakers have identified that many have had adverse childhood experiences, are exposed to drugs and/or alcohol at a young age, and are also at significant risk of being unemployed and homeless.

Creating a holistic package of support which seeks to identify those at risk and directs them towards a range of services to tackle not just the addiction but other trauma or socioeconomic barriers earlier, will, in a similar way to the VRU, give people a sense of purpose and value, and help them to see an alternate route that will allow them to contribute positively to society and improve their own outcomes.

A new way to tackle social issues in the UK?

Tackling the spread of violence through communities is not an easy task, nor is breaking the cycle of crime that many find themselves trapped within, often as a result of family allegiances or geographic location. It is often the case that either you participate, or you become the next victim yourself. More and more young people are feeling the need to carry knives for protection, due to the high levels of fear of becoming a victim.

Identifying those young people who are at risk of turning towards a life of violence at the earliest possible stage is difficult, but has been shown to be effective in helping to tackle violent gang-related crime. Although it is not the only tactic available to police, used effectively in conjunction with other outreach programmes it can be an effective tool in preventative policing, helping to keep communities safe.

The outcome in Glasgow has been largely positive, following the roll out of the Violence Reduction Unit programme. Whether this approach has the same success in London, operating on a larger scale, with different economic and social variables, and in a very different budget climate, remains to be seen. In particular it is worth noting that the Glasgow approach recognised there were no quick fixes, and was based on long-term planning covering ten year periods.

It is to be hoped, though, that changing the way we think about violence within communities may offer a route to tackling it.


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New year, new high street: it’s time to reshape our town centres (part two)

Dunfermline town centre

This is the second of a two-part blog on high streets and town centres.  In our last post, we highlighted some recent publications that have sought to address the challenges facing our high streets and town centres.

We looked at how towns could work to diversify their retail offer, placing greater focus upon developing experiences and services that are not easily replicated online – such as hair and beauty services, gyms, cinema, restaurants and nightlife.

We also highlighted the benefits of identifying a town centre’s unique selling point (USP), capitalising on the opportunities presented by the widespread growth of technology, and offering various forms of support to local businesses and entrepreneurs.

In this post, we consider how community involvement, good quality inclusive urban design, the promotion of healthy environments and the creation of homes on the high street can all provide ways to promote and support town centres to better meet the needs of local people in a changing retail and economic environment.

A community-focused high street

The town centre has long been considered the beating heart of a community.  As such, it makes sense that any attempt to revitalise them would have local people at its heart.

In Dunfermline, a pilot placemaking project has made use of innovative, interactive methods of engagement with young people to help plan and deliver town centre improvements.

Young people were asked to assess the quality of the town centre and to identify areas where improvements could be made, using tools such as the Place Standard and the Town Centre Toolkit.

There are lots of other great community-focused town centre initiatives. ‘Can Do Places’ aims to engage the local community in order to bring empty town centre properties back into use in various ways, for example, by providing spaces for budding entrepreneurs or supporting community arts and crafts.

Stalled Spaces Scotland is another noteworthy project – with a focus on greening derelict, under- or unused outdoor areas.  As well as improving the look and feel of a town centre, this scheme also aims to involve the local community and schools in the development and use of the spaces themselves.

A healthy and accessible high street

It goes without saying that if town centres are to attract both people and businesses then they must be both attractive and accessible – easily walkable, safe, and clean.  Indeed, amongst its findings, the High Street 2030 report highlights “calls for improved accessibility that is more environmentally-friendly, new public spaces or areas, centres that better serve older people”.

There has also been considerable discussion around how the design of town centres (and urban areas in general) impact upon various vulnerable groups.  We have blogged on this subject on various occasions, focusing in turn on the creation of places that address the needs of older people, people with dementia, autistic people and children.

There has also been widespread discussion of the relative advantages and disadvantages of shared space street design – which has been used by many places in the UK in attempt to revitalise their town centre spaces with varying levels of success.

As well as their role in the creation of inclusive, accessible spaces for all, there has been some focus upon the link between high streets and health.

Last year, Public Health England published guidance on the development of ‘healthy high streets’ – high streets that have a positive influence on the health of local people.  It focuses on elements such as air quality, enhanced walkability, the provision of good quality street design, street furniture, and communal spaces. It argues that the development of healthy high streets will support economic growth as well as community cohesion.

It also approaches the subject of diversity on the high street – recommending that there is an adequate number of healthy and affordable food outlets and limiting the number of alcohol, betting and payday loan outlets.

A high street to call home

Another way of bringing people back into the high street is to have them literally live there.

At the end of 2017, the Federation of Master Builders published a report ‘Homes on our high streets’, which argued that “revitalising our high streets through well planned and designed residential units could help rejuvenate smaller town centres”.

For example, Aldershot, as highlighted in the High Streets 2030 report, has been making use of the Housing Infrastructure Fund to promote residential development in the town centre and has undertaken property acquisition in the town centre, most recently acquiring the former Marks & Spencer  store.

Creating additional homes above shops or in former retail units not only helps to make use of vacant properties and regenerate town centres, but may also help to address housing shortages in many areas.

 Looking to the Future

So while 2019 may present high streets and town centres with some of their toughest challenges yet, there is a wealth of research, experiences and innovative ideas on which to draw.  The newly announced Future High Streets Fund will no doubt be of use to help put these ideas into practice.

And perhaps most importantly of all, local people remain enthusiastic about developing their town centres and wish to see them flourish. As the High Streets 2030 project noted:

The workshops and interactions provided real insight into the challenges faced by town centres. That they are worth fighting for was abundantly evident from the enthusiasm of those participating.”


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Tackling health inequalities: what does the data tell us and how can it help?

Health inequalities in Scotland are significant. Every year we hear about how Scotland has some of the biggest gaps in the health and wellbeing of the poorest and richest in society. In some cases, Scotland has the largest gaps in equality in the whole of Europe. And in many instances, they are rising. Scotland also has the lowest life expectancy of all UK countries.

A number of studies and research projects have been commissioned to try to identify the key indicators and factors that are creating and reinforcing these inequalities, and what sorts of interventions would work best to try and reduce or eradicate them altogether. It is hoped that by conducting research, and compiling data, policymakers can use this to identify groups and geographic areas where health inequalities are significant, and to intervene to reduce them, with data to help back up and evaluate the effectiveness of these interventions. In Scotland, work is being done by a number of organisations including the Scottish Government, Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) and Public Health Innovation Network Scotland (PHINS).

What indicators and factors are being measured?

Income inequality has a related impact on health inequalities, and the scale of low pay is significant. The relationship between health inequalities, poverty and household income is one which has been explored at length and is often highlighted as one of the main factors which influences health inequalities. Studies which look at income, and also at relative levels of deprivation can provide useful comparison points, with comparable datasets on employment status and income readily available at a national and local level. Data also considers trends over time, comparing pre- and post-economic crash data, as well as relative earnings and expenditure relative to inflation and the rising cost of living. Other factors include age (those under 25 and earning a lower minimum wage for example) and by gender, with more women in lower paid, lower skilled and part time or insecure work.

How usable is the research being created?

The research which examines health inequalities explores a whole range of interrelated factors, and highlights just how complex the landscape of inequalities is. Creating a clear and holistic picture of all of the factors which contribute to health inequalities is not easy. Many studies, while detailed and effective, are niche, and focus on a very limited number of factors across a limited demographic source. As a result, questions have been raised about the utility of this research and its applicability and scalability at a national level. In an attempt to tackle this, combined data sets are being produced which provide opportunities for comparison across data from a range of studies.

The “Triple I” tool from NHS Health Scotland is designed to help policy designers to create effective interventions to reduce health inequalities. A second edition of the tool is due to be released in 2018/19. Triple I aims to provide national and local decision makers with practical tools and interpreted research findings about investing in interventions to reduce health inequalities in Scotland. It does this by modelling the potential impact of different interventions and policies on overall population health and health inequalities.

 

What can be done to act on the data?

While the research being produced is high quality, and thorough in relation to findings, the real question is what can actually be done with the research, and what steps can policymakers and practitioners take to use the findings to inform their own practice.

There are, researchers suggest, significant opportunities presented by the recent research which has been done on income inequality. In particular, they cite the public sector and public sector pay as a key way to reduce the income, and therefore the inequality gap, particularly among higher earners and those who would be considered “working poor” or “just about managing”. In Scotland, significantly more people are employed in the public sector than in any other part of the UK, and there is, researchers suggest, an opportunity to better align and increase low wages to help to reduce the gap.

The adoption of new initiatives, such as the “housing first model”, which is due to be rolled out in Glasgow to help homeless people break the cycle of homelessness, are also opportunities not only to address inequalities, but to ensure that long term help and support is in place to prevent any relapse into chaotic or risky behaviour. In relation to housing first, the savings on front line services such as emergency admissions to hospital, or contact with the police after committing a crime are significant, and while more in depth research is needed to create a full cost benefit analysis model of the scheme and its effectiveness, early studies show that the impact on health and wellbeing on those who had previously been homeless is huge in terms of reducing inequalities and improving wellbeing. However further data on homelessness in Scotland shows how far we have to go, and that housing first is only one mechanism which can be used to begin this process of reducing inequalities among the most and least deprived communities in Scotland.

Alternatively, some have suggested a more radical overhaul of how we distribute welfare and wealth within the country. Research has been coming thick and fast on the subject of a “citizens basic income”, particularly following the trial which was rolled out in Finland (the findings of which have not yet been published). Research on how this could impact on inequalities is not widespread yet, as pilots have been small scale, However, it is suggested that a total overhaul of welfare, replacing it instead with a citizen’s basic income would be a more effective way to reduce inequalities across the board, including in health.

Summing up

Health inequalities are significant in Scotland. Much of the research focuses on the impact of deprivation, poverty and low income on health inequalities and how, in order to tackle health inequalities in Scotland we must also tackle some of the other significant social problems within our communities, including low income and insecure work, and the impact of homelessness or chaotic lifestyles on health.

Data can be used in a number of ways to help inform policy decisions, some more radical than others. But creating a complete understanding of inequality in Scotland is challenging. It is up to researchers and policymakers to work together to create a better understanding of the conditions and factors which contribute to inequality, and what can be done to help tackle systemic and entrenched inequalities in our communities through policy levers and evidence based policy making.

If you liked this article you may also be interested in:

Universal basic income: too good to be true?

A world of evidence … but can we trust that it is any good?

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Social Policy and Practice …. an essential resource for anyone working in public health

We’re proud to be part of the publishing consortium which creates Social Policy and Practice, the only UK-produced social science database focused on social care, social services, public health, social policy and public policy.

So we’re thrilled that during October anyone can get free access to the database via Ovid and Wolters Kluwers’ Health, the internationally-recognised leader in medical information services.

There’s still a few days left of the special offer, so why not test drive it for free!

Addressing priorities in public health

Over the last few years there have been major changes in the public health landscape in the UK. Responsibility for commissioning many public health services moved from the NHS to local authorities, as a result of government reforms.

The King’s Fund has suggested that one challenge of this shift has been bridging the cultures of the NHS and local authorities. In particular there were clear differences in the understanding, value and use of evidence to determine decision-making and policy.

The continuing pressure on local authority budgets has also threatened the focus on prevention and joined up service delivery which is essential for tackling many public health issues.

Recent feedback on Social Policy and Practice has highlighted its strong coverage of many current priority issues in public health, such as:

  • dementia care
  • delayed discharge
  • funding of long term care
  • safeguarding of both children and adults
  • supporting resilience and well-being
  • tackling obesity
  • asset-based approaches

As a UK-produced database you will also find information on topical policy issues such as minimum alcohol pricing, sugar taxes, and the possible impact on the health and social care workforce of Brexit.

A valued resource

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.

Social Policy and Practice was also identified by the Alliance for Useful Evidence in a major mapping exercise in 2015, as a key resource supporting evidence use in government and the public sector.

Social Policy and Practice boasts over 400,000 references to papers, books and reports and about 30% of the total content is grey literature, which is hard to find elsewhere.

The focus is on research and evidence that is relevant to those in the UK. A large proportion of material relates to delivery and policy within the UK and the devolved nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the database also contains resources of interest from Europe and across the world.


To see for yourself why so many UK universities, local authorities and NHS bodies rely on Social Policy and Practice as a resource, visit Ovid Resource of the Month for instant access.

To find out more about the history of the database and the consortium of publishers behind it, read this article from 2016 which we have been given permission to share.

Are controversial ‘fix rooms’ a solution or a problem?

By Steven McGinty

In August, Glasgow City Alcohol and Drug Partnership (ADP) announced that it had found a potential site for its pilot drug consumption facility.

This new service provides drug users with a place to inject drugs under clinical supervision and discard their needles. Other services may also be offered, including the prescription of pharmaceutical grade heroin (administered under strict controls) and the development of a peer support network.

The site in Glasgow’s city centre would be the first in the UK and it’s hoped that it would be up-and-running by 2018. However, these proposals have been met with a mixed response.

Drug consumption rooms

First established in Bern, Switzerland, in 1986, drug consumption rooms were a response to concerns over the spread of HIV/AIDS, increases in drug related deaths, and the rise of public drug deaths in European cities. They were also part of a wider shift in drugs policy, where traditional abstinence-based approaches were being replaced by harm reduction programmes, which focused on reducing the negative impacts of drug abuse.

Since then, over 90 drug consumption facilities have been opened in countries such as Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada.

The case for Glasgow

Approximately 500 drug users inject in public places in the city centre. This small group of people accounts for the majority of discarded needles – a major public health risk for the city – and for many instances of public order problems. As a result, Glasgow City Council, Police Scotland and other agencies are spending significant resources managing drug misuse in the city centre.

Although this small group of public injectors provides challenges, they are also vulnerable and often experience other issues such as homelessness, mental health issues, and recent imprisonment. In particular, they are far more likely to suffer health problems. This includes an increased risk of blood-borne viruses, injecting-related serious infections, and overdoses and drug-related deaths. In recent years, the statistics have shown a decline in the health of Glasgow’s drug users. In 2015, the number of HIV infection cases rose from a consistent 10 to 47 per year. Drug-related deaths also rose from 157 to 170 in 2016.

As Susanne Millar, chief officer of Planning, Strategy and Commissioning for the Glasgow City Health and Social Care Partnership, and chair of the ADP, explains:

People injecting drugs in public spaces are experiencing high levels of harm and are impacting on the wider community. We need to make our communities safer for all people living in and visiting the city, including those who publicly inject.”

What the experts say

Many have welcomed the announcement.

Dr Emilia Crighton, director of Public Health at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, and vice chair of the ADP, argues that Glasgow is decades behind other countries in how it responds to drug addiction. She highlights that the city has been at the centre of high profile cases of anthrax, botulism and HIV infection, and that conventional treatment has not been successful at reducing health risks. She explains:

Our ultimate goal is for drug users to recover from their addiction and remain drug free. However, until someone is ready to seek and receive help to stop using drugs it is important to keep them as safe as possible while they do continue to use drugs.”

David Liddell, Chief Executive Officer of the Scottish Drugs Forum, is also in favour of the new facility, explaining that they have been successful in other countries.

They may seem controversial but when you see that these have been running in many countries in Europe for up to 30 years, you get a different perspective. Holland now has 31 drug consumption rooms and Germany has 24, for example. From these years of practice, clear evidence has emerged as to the effectiveness of these facilities.”

But there has also been some notable criticism. For example, Professor Neil McKeganey, an expert in drugs policy with the Centre for Substance Use Research in Glasgow, argued that the scheme is highly flawed. He believes that David Liddell is wrong, and contends that the proposed facilities are controversial. Professor McKeganey highlights previous research with drug addicts in Scotland which found that only 5% wanted to inject more safely, with the overwhelming majority wanting to receive treatment and become drug free. Professor McKeganey also suggests that ‘supposedly’ safer places to inject will not reduce the rising cases of HIV infection and other drug-related harms.

He warns that although these services have a role to play, “there is a real danger here we are moving steadily away from services to get addicts off drugs.

Final thoughts

There is a growing body of research into the effectiveness of drug consumption rooms. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has found that drug consumption facilities can deliver a number of benefits, including:

  • increasing access to health and social services;
  • supporting safe and hygienic drug use; and
  • reducing public drug use and associated nuisance.

However, the evidence on whether drug consumption rooms reduce cases of HIV or the hepatitis C virus remain unclear. And research has also shown that some countries can find it difficult to establish a legal basis for facilities – as the recent suspension of a facility in Greece demonstrates.

For Glasgow, it probably is about time that a drug consumption room was piloted. However, it will be important that its impacts are fully evaluated and that resources for drug treatment services are maintained in the coming years.


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If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read some of other health-related articles. 

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:

The Dickensian disease: TB in 21st century England

England has the second highest tuberculosis (TB) rate in Western Europe, and a rate that is more than four times as high as in the US. Why is this seemingly Dickensian disease making a comeback in England today? And what is being done to tackle it?

The TB capital of Western Europe

Figures show that TB cases are centred on large urban centres; Manchester, Birmingham and Coventry to name just three. However London accounts for almost 50% of all cases of TB reported in England. A third of London boroughs are classed as ‘high incidence’ by the World Health Organisation (WHO), placing them in the same band as countries like Iraq and Rwanda, with more than 40 confirmed cases per 100,000 people per day.

In 2013 there were 3,500 new cases of TB diagnosed in the capital. Healthcare professionals stress the importance of early diagnosis and treatment as being a key strategy to eradicating the disease.

Stigmatisation is a real issue

TB is strongly associated with poverty and research has suggested that many people do not seek treatment for the disease because they are embarrassed about the potential repercussions of having to tell family members, support workers or employers. This not only poses a risk to the infected person, but significantly increases the chances of passing the infection on to others.

Similarly, statistics show that cases of TB are particularly prevalent among homeless populations and other vulnerable minority groups. Delays in seeking treatment, already-reduced immunity, pre-existing strains of the disease which can reoccur, and overcrowded shelters can all contribute to spreading the disease, which is caught through prolonged contact with an infected person (the bacteria is spread through airborne droplets).

Another barrier to effective treatment is misdiagnosis by general practitioners.  As a result there has been a conscious effort in London in particular to educate general practitioners and other primary healthcare workers on possible symptoms in the hope that it will help increase rates of diagnosis and treatment, and reduce the number of new cases.

A public health emergency?

However, the rise of antibiotic and drug resistant strains of the disease is making treatment of TB even more difficult. A full course of treatment of non-drug resistant TB bacteria can take up to two years in some cases. If the strain is drug resistant, patients can be taking as many as 9 different drugs a day, many of which have severe side effects and can be life-limiting in themselves.

Doctors have suggested that the rise of these drug resistant strains is not being taken seriously by Public Health England, or other associated bodies and that drug resistant TB should be considered as a public health emergency. In 2014 the LGA produced guidance on the public health role which should be taken on by local authorities to tackle TB locally within communities.

Updated guidance and treatment programmes

In early 2016, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published updated guidance on TB, with a particularly strong focus on: early treatment; targeting vulnerable groups; and improving education and awareness of the disease for patients and GPs on how to spot symptoms.

Prior to this, in 2015, Public Health England produced a collaborative strategy, in partnership with NHS England, to tackle TB in England. The strategy looks at how health boards, local authorities and national bodies can cooperate to achieve national outcomes on TB diagnosis, treatment and eventual eradication. The report considers the creation of nine regional TB control boards, who would work alongside national bodies to achieve these national objectives. London-specific objectives and strategies were published in October 2015.

Practical support for sufferers in communities

Find & Treat  provides screening, advice and practical assistance to TB services and allied health and social care services in London. In partnership with Groundswell (a charity supporting homeless people), the team behind Find & Treat also recruit, train and support former TB patients who have experienced homelessness to work as peer advocates in their TB awareness team.

The Mobile X-ray Unit (MXU) now screens almost 10,000 socially vulnerable people at high risk of TB annually. The screening service operates in every London borough, and is regularly called to support the control of TB outbreaks nationally. University College London Hospitals (UCLH) host the service on behalf of NHS London, and are close to rolling out the Find & Treat initiative nationally (as recommended by NICE). Additionally in London there are two designated ‘hub’ hospitals, in the north and the south of the city with designated teams of TB specialists.

To further increase the profile of TB, prevention and treatment, actress Emma Thompson has been appointed as the Mayor of London’s TB Ambassador. This follows her son’s diagnosis with TB in 2011. Since her appointment she has been a very public face of TB awareness, regularly attending clinics and health drives to encourage people to get tested for the disease.

As the statistics have shown, TB rates are frighteningly high in some areas of the UK, and particularly in London. It is hoped that increased guidance and public awareness will help stop the increase of cases and avoid the potential public health epidemic which could arise in London as the population grows and pressure on NHS services intensifies. There is added incentive to curb this spread as the rise of antibiotic resistant strains becomes more prevalent.

Vaccination programmes, effective treatment centres and early intervention community initiatives, as well as investment in research and development for new drugs to treat the disease effectively, will be key to ensuring positive outcomes for all those affected by, or at risk of, TB in the UK.


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Further blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange on health:

Health Champions – “unlocking the power of communities”

Health Cubes_iStock_000022075266Large

By Heather Cameron

“On the societal level, we must understand that health is not an individual outcome, but arises from social cohesion, community ties, and mutual support.” Dr Gabor Maté

Health inequalities have long been an issue in the UK and despite continuous government commitment to tackling them, they continue to persist.

It is estimated that avoidable illness costs around £60 billion and that 1 in 4 deaths are preventable with the adoption of healthier lifestyles. Calls have therefore been made for radical changes in the approach to public health by improving health and wellbeing outside of the core public health workforce.

This is just the approach of the Community Health Champion model, developed by Altogether Better, which has demonstrated not only the positive impact on health but the social value of such an approach.

What are health champions?

Health Champions are volunteers from all walks of life who are provided with accredited training and support so they can undertake health promotion activities within their communities to reduce health inequalities and improve the health of the local population.

The Community Health Champion role began as a five year Big Lottery Funded programme (Wellbeing 1) in 2008. Over 18,000 Health Champions were recruited, trained and supported between 2008 and 2012, reaching over 105,000 people.

Through a combination of their training and own personal experiences, these volunteers empower and encourage people within their families, communities and workplaces to take up healthy activities, create groups to meet local needs and can signpost people to relevant support and services.

Challenges

While Wellbeing 1 succeeded in reaching many people in need, the programme also raised two specific challenges: in almost all cases, the work being done was invisible to the NHS; and securing ongoing funding to continue the support was difficult.

Peer support was later identified as the most appropriate way of trying to connect communities with health services.

Following this recognition and the success of the original model, further lottery funding was awarded to develop the Champion model and use it to engage champions, communities and health services (Wellbeing 2).

Co-production of health and wellbeing outcomes

The model was applied to health services specifically with the aim of addressing the apparent disconnect between the NHS and community-based services. It helps connect both patients with support in their communities and professional practices with those communities.

Many citizens have volunteered in different ways and in different settings. These include:

  • Practice Health Champions working closely with their General Practice to create new ways for patients to access non-clinical support
  • Youth Health Champions where children and young people are recruited, trained and supported to help young people more actively engage with and influence their own and their community’s health
  • Pregnancy and early years Health Champions who are interested in giving children a better start
  • Health Champions working within a specialist, hospital-based NHS service
  • Senior Health Champions who engage with older people, offering a complimentary approach to more formal programmes

Community-based health improvement initiatives such as this could help to strengthen community-professional partnerships and cross-collaboration among health, social and other services. And this in turn could lead to a reduction in health inequalities.

Positive outcomes

According to a recent evaluation of the Health Champions programme, Wellbeing 2 has resulted in a range of benefits:

  • 86% of champions and 94% of participants in the programme reported increased levels of confidence and well-being;
  • 87% of champions and 94% of participants in the programme acquired significant new knowledge related to health and well-being;
  • 98% of champions and 99% of participants in the programme reported increased involvement in social activities and social groups;
  • 95% of practice staff involved with the programme would recommend it and wish to continue.

Other benefits included reduced social isolation, increased levels of exercise/healthy eating and feeling physically better. One champion reported “this has helped me more than any medication might.”

Success stories  include the work of a cycle champion who has improved her own health and wellbeing, encouraged over 70 other people to improve theirs through taking up cycling, provided cycle training to over 50 people in 6 community groups and provided specific detailed help to 5 people.

Other successes have involved volunteers setting up football training, providing support to women with mental health issues, providing advice and support to ethnic minorities and providing advice on healthy eating.

In terms of monetary value, an  analysis of the social return on investment (SROI) of a series of Altogether Better project beneficiaries found a positive SROI of between £0.79 and £112.42 for every pound invested, highlighting the potential value of these initiatives to funders.

Final thoughts

At a time of increasing demands on health services and with the relentless squeeze on public sector resources, perhaps the move towards greater community empowerment and collaboration across sectors is the right one. After all, as I’m sure we’d all agree, prevention is better than cure.


If you liked this blog post, you might also want to read Heather’s earlier post on social prescribing

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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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