Not one of us has had a choice in the life circumstances into which we were born. We are born in a country, with particular parents and with certain advantages and possible disadvantages – and this can have a lifelong impact on our health and wellbeing. We know that some are born with genetic conditions that have a huge effect on their lives; those brought up in poor housing conditions are more likely to suffer from respiratory diseases; children brought up in care may have less resilience to overcome difficulties (which is not to say that many don’t overcome them); and many are not able to make the most of opportunities because of the difficult and challenging circumstances they find themselves in.
Within Public Health, a discipline that has a major focus on seeking to improve health and wellbeing at a population level and reducing inequalities, a model that we often use to describe these situations is the Dahlgren and Whitehead rainbow (below). This, since its publication, has become a frequently used model for describing the underlying causes of ill health in the population and provides a helpful framework on which much of the health improvement work we are involved in is based. It offers a social model, which focuses not just on the individual lifestyle factors that impact on health, but on the wider socio-economic, cultural and environmental conditions, which make a huge difference to our health and wellbeing.
Underlying these differing life circumstances are inequalities which may be income, education, housing, environment or social conditions. The graph below shows how health and social problems are worse in more unequal countries. These inequalities can be found with regards to child wellbeing, levels of mental illness, drug use, life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity, teenage pregnancy, education, to name just a few.
These inequalities are not inevitable, and therefore should be tackled in order to ensure people have opportunities to improve their health and wellbeing. It is the role of Public Health and all our other partners to address these issues. It is not an easy task nor can it be undertaken by one agency alone.
Improving health and wellbeing must be supported at all the different levels identified in the rainbow model above. At an individual level, we need to understand why people behave in the way they do. Much of our work in improving the populations’ health and in providing preventive services is about supporting people to make their own positive life choices. However, having the ability to make choices is something not everyone has to the same extent: the very reason why we need to support people. For example, at one level, people have the choice as to whether to smoke or not. But if you are under stress, giving up smoking might be one thing that is too difficult to contemplate: we know that will power is a finite resource, and if you are juggling with a crisis, then all your efforts need to go into solving that crisis. And that is not even considering the physical addiction and the impact of tobacco withdrawal. Remember, very few people actually want to be addicted to cigarettes.
Health and wellbeing also needs to be addressed at a family level. For example, we know that some children are disadvantaged at school entry because they do not have the necessary emotional, social and cognitive skills which enable them to take advantage of the opportunities available from education. Support for parents can provide the self-confidence and self-efficacy to help counteract these difficulties, so that children can have the best start in life. This is extremely important for future life when these children become adults, and affects further wellbeing and subsequent use of health and social care services.
There are many approaches to supporting improved outcomes for population health. For example, at a wider level it is important that environmental issues are addressed. Creating enough green space for children to play or adults to walk and be physically activity can have a major impact on health and wellbeing – as can having nutritious food available locally, or accessible social activities. Having enough money is also a key element of trying to live healthily. In times of job insecurity and rising costs, this can be challenging, so ensuring access to the right kind of advice for claiming benefit, offering support to complete job applications, provide welfare rights information to support people to claim what they are entitled to, providing accessible health services and health information which is easily understood, is vital.
If, as a society, we are to reduce the burden on health and social services, we must work together to prevent and mitigate against the circumstances which act together to limit the ability for communities and individuals to achieve optimum health and wellbeing. There is a lot that can be done to support people’s health and wellbeing, and this must be underpinned by looking at what people themselves really want, not just assuming that we, as health professionals, know what is best for them. We need to listen and understand where people are coming from, and do that with compassion. We all want the freedom and autonomy to do what is best for ourselves, and we need to make sure we support people in achieving that for themselves.
Catherine Mackereth is a Consultant in Public Health and Michele McCoy is a Consultant in Public Health and Interim Director of Public Health at NHS D&G