Empowering the community and the general public is the most effective way to reduce cancer mortality, and improve health and wellbeing.
But how that empowerment is achieved is vital to safe practice and good outcomes.
We need to realise that many messages relating to health improvement still pass a lot of the public by because it is perceived as being “at us” rather than “with us”.
Work being done in North East Lincolnshire with the cancer Collaborative, the new Health Trainer Screening Support Service and the Cancer Champions, effectively uses members of the public to get messages out about the signs and symptoms of common cancers and encourage screening attendance and early presentation to the GP. It is a “with us” approach.
The Cancer Champions are a good example of how members of the public, who have a lot of interaction with the rest of the population, can support others to see their GP. A short training programme is required to equip the champions to do this and to help them recognise boundaries and know whom to contact. They are already having a positive effect on cancer mortality.
For some nurses, the prospect of handing over health information can be a challenge. Some feel threatened by doing this. The key is to make the distinction between those who provide healthcare and those who encourage others to engage with it.
Knowledge is power, and sharing that knowledge can be challenging, but it should not be the exclusive domain of health professionals. Problems arise when the public accesses information, which raises expectations to unrealistic levels. For instance someone affected by cancer can see a new treatment being piloted in the US on the internet, and finds that it is not accessible here.
Self-diagnosis is another pitfall of the information age. The aim when sharing information should be to raise awareness and ensure people then recognise the importance of seeing a health professional as soon as possible.
There is no way the internet can replace the years of training and subsequent experience we get as nurses. Equally the people engaged in the initiatives in North East Lincolnshire recognise they are not nurses, and they don’t aim to replace any health worker, but pro-actively encourage people to seek professional advice earlier. They possess enough information to encourage their friend who has been coughing for over three weeks, or their colleague who won’t go for a smear, to access the right support.
More importantly it is about fellow human beings, not a search engine, supplying the information, so they can communicate the importance of seeing the right professional as early as possible. When it comes to cancer I want the human touch, and I don’t think I am alone.
Annie Darby is specialist projects lead – public health, directorate of public health, North East Lincolnshire