The secret weapon in UK public health research

I attended a good breakfast meeting today about public health research. It was convened by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Medical Research.

The speakers included Professor David Heymann (Chair of the Health Protection Agency), Professor Robert West (Director of Tobacco Studies at the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre), Professor Anne Johnson (Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemilogy at UCL) and the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies.

I was most definitely in listening mode but any sense of guilt about this was soon pushed aside by the Chair, Julien Huppert MP’s, comment at the start that he wouldn’t be attemtping a definition of public health research. Key themes for me included:

The important of Public Health England being an Executive Agency under the Health and Social Care Bill reforms to ensure its independence.
The danger of the new ‘localism’ to fragmenting public health research, service and delivery, they key question being how do you have a nationally driven agenda on public health that doesn’t break up when it enters the local sphere.
How to ensure that public health money is ring-fenced within local authority budgets when it moves there in due course – we have been assured it will be.
The status, contractual situation and accountability lines of Public Health Directors; also how to make public health a stronger and much more attractve specialty to medical students.
Lots of compliments for the new NIHR School on Public Health which is just about there – watch this space for a forthcoming announcement.
Real concerns that unless we sort out the data issue – access, linkage and confidentiality – we are ‘dead in the water’ when it comes to doing public health research.
Some criticisms of the Government approach to obesity and the message should be much simpler that we need to eat less – at which point I have to admit I suddenly felt murderously hungry particularly since some salmon bagels were just out of reach.

I was quite taken with the panel’s comments that the UK was the envy of the world when it came to how we dealt with the H1N1 flu virus because of a) our capability in terms of disease surveillance and b) the speed with which NIHR, MRC and the Wellcome Trust got together to fund research etc. Similarly how difficult the US and other countries find it to establish things like birth cohorts for future research. The reason – our secret weapon – the NHS.

Sorry that was a bit if a rush of toplines but I thought you might be interested.

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