The rapid rise in childhood obesity is an “absolute scandal”, Sir Malcolm Grant, Chair of NHS England said on Wednesday.
Addressing an audience of MPs, health policymakers, and researchers at the launch of the Campaign for Social Science’s new report, The Health of People, Sir Malcolm said, “We have 10 per cent of children going into school by age five who are obese. By age 11 it is 20 per cent. How can we as a nation feel complacent about that?”
“We have to stop normalising obesity and we have to stop poisoning our children, and we have to start coming to grips with what is a very serious social problem”, he said.
Sir Malcolm pointed to the high sugar content of many fizzy drinks as one of the primary contributors to childhood obesity.
“There is a long way to go beyond fizzy drinks; this is just a starting point.” Combating the disease requires a combination of prevention through schools, diet, and “intelligent guidance” to parents, he said.
The Health of People report comes as pressures on the NHS to deal with an ageing population, growing rates of obesity and a rise in long term chronic conditions continue to mount. The report demonstrates how the social and behavioural sciences can help find cost effective strategies to improve public health and service delivery through behaviour change, prevention and greater use of data science.
The Campaign argues that biomedical science can’t tackle the challenges facing health alone. Social science understanding of the social and economic factors of ill health, the costs and benefits of clinical interventions, and how to change people’s habits are essential to healthcare today.
Professor Susan Michie, Director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at UCL, and Chair of the Working Group that produced the report, said obesity is a prime example of how people’s health is affected by their social and material environments.
“There’s no way around it, if we want to make progress in obesity people need to change their behaviours”, she said. “We need to take on the influencers on people’s eating and sedentary behaviours, and be able to understand how their social and material environments contribute to health. The social sciences give us that insight and the tools necessary to help change behaviours that lead to healthier outcomes.”
The report, compiled by an expert Working Group of leading social scientists and health practitioners from across the UK, sets out additional recommendations to improve public health, including:
- The creation of ‘implementation laboratories’, linking research, clinical care and policy to understand what works and improve uptake of effective interventions
- Adopting a new ‘social consent model’ linking health and social data to improve the quality of NHS services and patient experiences
- Training programmes to connect high-level data skills to health research
- A joined up health and social care system enhancing how patients engage with biomedical and technological interventions
- Establishing a ‘strategic coordinating body’ of research funders, public health organisations and relevant learned societies to support multidisciplinary health research and its translation into policy and practice
- Further embedding social science research into national healthcare policy