The environments we live in and the people we spend time with have a huge impact on our overall health and wellbeing, accounting for at least 60 per cent of it. We’ve known this for decades, and yet despite a long procession of commitments and reports, successive governments have consistently failed to take action to prioritise prevention and the health of the public.
It was hoped that the Prevention Green Paper, snuck out last night, would go some way to addressing these challenges. There is much to welcome - the emphasis on good health as an asset, the importance of social and economic determinants throughout an individual’s life and the need to address inequalities. However, it is disappointingly light on how government departments will fund and work with local communities to address these wider determinants or create more equal opportunities for people to thrive.
The political and financial obstacles are not to be underestimated, but there is also a much more fundamental issue at play. Although a huge amount is known about the causes of ill health - from the impacts of pollution on children’s asthma to how healthy living can lower your chances of developing dementia - we still know remarkably little about what to do about them.
The UK spends little more than five per cent of the UK’s health research budget on prevention research. The green paper recognises that “Transformative change in prevention will only be achieved if it is underpinned by high-quality research”, yet lacks any detail as to how this will be achieved or what investment it will put behind it. And while the proposed new Health Index will go some way to creating a shared approach to measuring the health impacts of changes in social and economic policy, it won’t help decision-makers know what to do.
At Nesta, we believe a systematic approach is needed. We want this to start with the creation of a world-renowned centre of research and practice - the ‘Nightingale’. Following in the footsteps of the public health pioneer, the centre would connect those working across different fields of research, design and technology, building R&D capability alongside research teams and communities right across the UK. It would create new evidence-based insights into how to improve health and reduce inequalities, as well as how to embed behavioural science and evidence into the design of new technologies, predictive prevention programmes, and screening services - some of the most significant commitments in the green paper.
The Government will respond that the NHS budget is already at breaking point. Yet, the UK continues to inflate the biomedical bubble, spending close to £4 billion each year on a handful of conditions considered most amenable to pharmaceutical intervention. Considering the Francis Crick Institute’s annual budget of over £140 million, we would expect a similar investment into a centre that could create hundreds of new insights, dramatically shifting priorities, funding and action to benefit everyone, and saving the NHS millions of pounds over time.
We urgently need action to be taken. A failure to invest in prevention research will only put further strain on our health and care system and see healthy life expectancy continue to stall. From pollution to mental health, loneliness to obesity, the list will only grow if we do not build a solid evidence base to inform a much more ambitious and joined-up approach to prevention action. We hope that the new PM takes a more decisive approach, making this a cross-government priority and demonstrating that good health really is our nation’s most precious asset.