Article 25.06.2021

Strategic focus on prevention and early detection research for better health

Blog by Professor Wendy Wills, ARC EoE Prevention and Early Detection in Health and Social Care Theme Lead highlighting the NIHR’s new strategic focus on public health

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) has published Best Research for Best Health: The Next Chapter, to set out how it aims to address health and social care challenges through its core workstreams, operational priorities and strategic focus for the next 5-10 years. The NIHR has reiterated its commitment to collaborating with the public, including patients, service users, carers and others within its research communities and to supporting the training of a cadre of high quality researchers throughout the career pipeline.

Public health, social care and preventative research form part of the NIHR’s strategic focus for the next decade and the impacts of COVID-19 have, rightly, informed and shaped these priorities. COVID-19 has brought to the fore the need to understand people’s behaviours and practices (in relation to infection control measures and vaccine take-up, for example) as well as a continued emphasis on research to better prevent obesity and other long-term conditions that are a risk factor for COVID-19.

Public mental health will continue to be a priority for research as we move towards daily life with fewer COVID-19 restrictions in place, which is anxiety-provoking for many, including children and older adults. The longer-term impacts on mental health and wellbeing of not being able to spend time with family members, especially those in care homes and those who died during the pandemic, is not yet known.

The mental and physical health and wellbeing of people living with dementia is part of the NIHR strategic focus within a public health context, which must include service adaptation research to address the changing needs of those newly diagnosed with dementia. Within the ARC EoE Prevention and Early Detection in Health and Social Care theme, research is underway to understand carers’ health needs since many carers foreground the needs of those they care for, rather than prioritise their own wellbeing. This has implications for carers’ concurrent health but is also not sustainable as an effective model of public health care.

Inequalities in health, wellbeing and access to services have been amplified during COVID-19, with those in the region’s most socio-economically deprived areas and ethnic minorities faring worse than other populations. The Prevention and Early Detection in Health and Social Care theme will endeavour to meet the NIHR strategic focus to continue to research inequalities and to involve people living in areas of socio-economic deprivation. Over the last 18 months, our theme has built relationships, including digital relationships during the pandemic, at the community level to find out what people are concerned about locally.  Our research is designed around these concerns, in partnership with organisations who work in the ARC EoE Populations in Focus of Stevenage, Peterborough, Fenland, Thurrock, Great Yarmouth and Waveney.

NIHR is putting investment towards greater linkage between academic researchers and local authorities. The sharing of expertise and knowledge between universities and local authority public health teams in the East of England means research priorities are aligned and resources shared, with a common goal of improving public health and preventing the development of disease and long-term conditions.

At the University of Hertfordshire, for example, funded by the Clinical Research Networks in the region, two researchers are now working with the local authority to undertake research on food poverty needs and place-based inequalities. Research skills are shared, local intelligence about need is pooled and the result will be a greater understanding of how to implement interventions that make a difference.

The NIHR ‘next chapter’ briefing sets out a clear vision of what needs to be done in terms of research, public involvement and capacity building in relation to public health and prevention research and the ARC East of England is well placed to deliver against this vision in the next few years.