‘Common sense flaw’ has led to major public health failures

5 April 2017

April 5, 2017

Over-reliance on ‘common sense’ approaches undermines improvements in health prevention and delivery, the Campaign for Social Science has said in a new report published today.

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Schemes such as targeted information campaigns, public health announcements or providing seemingly obvious advice are often short-sighted and based on limited evidence. This had led to ‘repeated policy failures’ and an avoidable waste of resources in a time of constrained budgets, the report says.

This ‘common sense flaw’ promotes convenient ‘nudges’ in people’s habits that are seen as easy to implement and do not conflict with ‘short-term political interests’, which compromise efforts to reduce healthcare demand and improve services. Instead, the Campaign calls for greater emphasis on changing the behaviours in patients, GPs, and policymakers that lead to poor health and services in the first place.

The ‘Health of People’ report, published by SAGE Publishing, 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.

Examples of where behaviour change has been used successfully include falls in smoking rates and teen pregnancy. However, ‘common sense’ programmes that failed to account for factors that influence uptake and impact, such as annual NHS health checks designed to promote health and save money, ultimately proved counterproductive and costly.

The report also says that tackling issues such as UK-wide variations in healthcare standards or the rapid rise in long-term chronic conditions requires more than new ways of delivering NHS services. They demand more strategic measures that account for individual and community realities, clinical best practice, and support for change.

Professor Susan Michie FAcSS, Director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at UCL, and Chair of the Working Group that produced the report, said:

“People’s health is influenced by their behaviour and the world around them. This is why the greatest improvements to health have come from population-wide measures of behaviour change that challenge social structures and reduce health inequalities. It also explains why interventions cannot just be copied; what works in one setting may not work in another.

“Solutions that may seem like common sense aren’t as straight-forward as people often think. Only through a multidimensional approach can we understand and change people’s behaviour, long-term habits and health.”

The report 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

The report was produced by an expert Working Group, bringing together a range of different academic disciplines and practitioner expertise, as well as different roles in relation to prevention and delivery of health care.

The report’s predecessor, the Business of People, launched in February 2015 and set out how social science can help guide government in key policy areas, including the economy, demographic change and migration to and from the UK.

Read the report