Health Service Focus


Firefighters and pharmacists: empowering the wider public health workforce

Source: NHE Mar/Apr 17

Shirley Cramer CBE, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), explains how we must look beyond the core public health workforce to meet the challenges of 2017.

It would be easy to be gloomy about the prospects for public health in 2017. As in many other areas of public spending, year-on-year cuts are a reality we are getting used to. After the chancellor, Philip Hammond, presented his final Spring Budget, he offered little in the way of respite. 

With the effects of public health spending cuts already being felt – alarming increases in sexually transmitted infections and drug-related hospital admissions are just two things that have already been explicitly linked to disinvestment in services – we in the public health community will reprise our usual lines, drawing on the NHS Five Year Forward View, about the need for a radical upgrade in public health, and investment in prevention being far more cost-effective than cure. 

These lines remain as true as ever, and yet they also remain unlikely to result in increased funding in the current political climate. The sad reality facing us is that, at least in the short term, we will have to find ways to do more with less. We could let this dispirit us, or (if we take the view of the eternal optimist) we can use it to provide further impetus to unleash more innovative and effective approaches and ways of working. 

A renewed focus on regionalism and localism, as expressed through the sustainability and transformation plans (STPs), may help. These plans should help ensure investment is better targeted to meet the needs of local populations, and that much-needed emphasis is placed on community-based support, prevention and the social determinants of health.

It is also clear the challenges facing the public’s health in 2017 cannot be met by the 40,000-strong core public health workforce alone. That is why one of the key drivers of RSPH’s work is, has been, and will continue to be the engagement, empowerment and upskilling of the wider public health workforce – the 15 million people in the UK who have the opportunity or ability to positively impact health and wellbeing through their work, from allied health professionals and blue light services to housing professionals and postal workers. 

RSPH aspires to a society where some element of protecting and promoting the public’s health is ingrained in everyone’s business – not just seen as belonging to a discrete public health profession which is already overstretched. 

Throughout this year, RSPH will be following through on work to help make this vision a reality. A number of professions, including firefighters and pharmacists, are already mobilising in support of the prevention agenda. Through our work, we hope to mobilise many more. 

One by one, we are engaging with different workforces to assess their capacity and desire to play a more active role in supporting the public’s health, and setting out what steps must be taken to enable them to do so. Later this year, we will be working with ukactive to better understand the potential role the health and fitness sector can play, as well as collaborating with the Professional Standards Authority to examine the role of the accredited registered workforce, including counsellors, complementary therapists and nutritionists.

To support this wider public health workforce, RSPH has launched a new qualification – the Level 2 Award in Improving the Public’s Health – to help all of those who want to develop their skills and take advantage of the opportunities in this area to do so. Bodies already interested in delivering the qualification to their staff range from local authorities in London and NHS trusts on the south coast to ambulance services in Yorkshire. Upskilling all of these professionals to support their clients in behaviour change that creates healthier lifestyles will help lessen the burden on both the core public health workforce and the NHS in 2017 and beyond. 

When the chancellor delivered his Spring Budget, he may indeed have not offered much respite to the public health community in terms of raw funding. However, courtesy of the accompanying 2017 Finance Bill, we will have seen more details of the implementation of the government’s sugar levy – a timely reminder that, if the public health community speaks in unison loudly and for long enough, even progressive legislation that may have once seemed unlikely under the current government can find its way into being. 

RSPH will continue to campaign in 2017 for such measures that level the playing field for healthy choice, and we encourage others to do the same.

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