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Leading social scientists suggest practical local policies to reduce health inequalities

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The British Academy has today published a collection of nine proposals from leading social scientists setting out ways that local authorities could improve the health of their communities and reduce health inequalities.

Within a year of the responsibility for public health being transferred from the NHS to local authorities, this report presents valuable and robust research from the social sciences to help local policy makers address health inequalities. Each of the expert authors has proposed one policy intervention that local policy makers could adopt to help reduce health inequality. Suggested policies range from lowering speed limits to improving further education and introducing a living wage.

The report highlights successful case studies, as well as encouraging councils to collaborate, share information, and build good relationships with local academics from the social sciences. 
It aims to embolden local policy makers to broaden the range of policy approaches used to reduce health inequalities and tackle some of the trickier structural and economic issues such as planning, worklessness and income inequality, as well as behavioural issues such as smoking and alcohol abuse.

Recent analysis has suggested that as little as 20% of the influences on health are to do with clinical care. Health behaviours account for 30% of influences and the physical environment for 10%, with socioeconomic factors having the largest impact on health at 40%.

Dame Jane Roberts, a psychiatrist, former leader of Camden Council and a member of the steering group that produced the report, said: "These nine proposals suggest concrete approaches policy makers can adopt to reduce health inequalities. A tough ask, especially in the academic world. But we wanted to concentrate minds turning academic understanding into local action."

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, author of ‘Closing the Gap in a Generation’, ‘European Review of Social Determinants and the Health Divide’ (WHO Review), and ‘Fair Society, Healthy Lives’ (The Marmot Review) and Honorary Fellow of the British Academy said: "Just as biological science is important to understanding health, so are the social sciences. It is encouraging that the British Academy has convened this group of social scientists to bring their knowledge to bear on policies to reduce health inequalities.

"If we are to reduce health inequalities we have to take action on the social determinants of health. As such, there will be continued need for academic partnership of social science with public health scientists and practitioners."

The authors represent a variety of approaches and areas of expertise and show the contribution that a wide range of social science research and ideas can make to reducing health inequalities.

The nine policy suggestions are:

  1. Implementing a living wage (Kate Pickett, Professor of Epidemiology, University of York);
  2. Increasing early childhood education (Edward Melhuish, Professor of Human Development, Birkbeck University);
  3. Implementing 20mph speed limits for cars in residential areas, by shops and schools (Danny Dorling, Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography, University of Oxford);
  4. Tackling health-related ‘worklessness’: a ‘health first’ approach (Clare Bambra, Professor of Public Health Policy, Durham University);
  5. Building ‘age-friendly’ communities and cities (Hal Kendig, Professor of Ageing and Public Policy, Australian National University, and Chris Phillipson, Professor of Sociology and Social Gerontology, University of Manchester);
  6. Using participatory budgeting to improve mental capital (Kwame McKenzie, Medical Director, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto);
  7. Improving the employment conditions of public sector workers (James Y. Nazroo,  Professor of Sociology, University of Manchester and Director of the Cathie Marsh Centre and the ESRC Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity);
  8. Increasing the scope of adult and further education (Tarani Chandola, Professor of Medical Sociology, University of Manchester and Andrew Jenkins, Senior Research Officer at the Institute of Education, University of London);
  9. Evaluating policies for evidence of cost effectiveness (Alan Maynard, Professor of Health Economics, University of York).

Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive of Royal Society for Public Health said: "There is a huge potential in the bringing together of different disciplines to help develop appropriate solutions and interventions and we fully support the opening of this dialogue. Shared learning provides an opportunity to expand knowledge and approach problems from a different perspective and could be a big step towards tackling health inequalities."

Jim McManus, Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire County Council and one of the members of the steering group for the report said: "We hope that these suggested policy interventions will fire the imagination of local authorities, health and wellbeing boards, directors of public health and other actors at a local level."

"Our hope is that this publication and the proposals in it go some way towards being a bridge between academia and local government, between social sciences and public health."

More information about the report is available on the British Academy’s website.

Editor's Notes

  1. For further information, images and interviews please contact the Laura Norton onl.norton@britac.ac.uk or 020 7969 5227.
  2. The British Academy for the humanities and social sciences. Established by Royal Charter in 1902. Its purpose is to inspire, recognise and support excellence and high achievement in the humanities and social sciences, throughout the UK and internationally, and to champion their role and value. For more information, please visit www.britishacademy.ac.uk.

Follow the British Academy on Twitter @britac_news

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