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Public health messages need a creative approach

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Public health, eh? You might think that telling people something is bad for them - telling them repeatedly I mean, and writing it down in case they forget - would result in healthier choices. Cigarettes, alcohol, kebabs or putting your head in a microwave, all of these should, one would think, be stamped out with the right amount of leafleting.

If habits were changed we could live longer, healthier lives. We could work longer and the taxes we’d pay would not be wasted on unnecessary illness but could fund more important things, such as bailing out our rubbish banks, mortgage relief for MPs and those ever-useful nuclear submarines.

Yet bizarrely people don’t pay that much attention to leaflets. Luckily, with the warnings in the Wanless report that the NHS will be unsustainable in a decade ringing in our ears, health professionals have got creative. Goodness knows somebody had to.

Recently The Times reported on ‘NHS bribes to kick bad habits’ and listed well-focused local initiatives to encourage good health. Examples included food vouchers and the chance to win cash prizes for people who give up smoking, and Wii games to incentivise chlamydia testing.

These sorts of schemes increase engagement and the possibility of healthy choices, and also save the NHS money because it usually spends billions managing avoidable disease.

‘If we changed our health habits the taxes we pay could go towards more important things, such as bailing out rubbish banks or mortgage relief for MPs’

However, the article didn’t praise innovation but rather revealed how the NHS was wasting taxpayers’ money. It rather imagined nurses were handing out iPods as rewards to people who can smoke the most cigarettes, or were encouraging kids to have unsafe sex in order to get a ticket for a computer game raffle.

That’s rubbish - this is brilliant nursing: creative, targeted and economically astute. The article quotes Mark Wallace, the campaign director for the Taxpayers’ Alliance, as saying: ‘A lot of people would be concerned that this is not what they pay their taxes for.’ Well, not the ones who can work out the simple principle that a little money spent now can save an awful lot down the line. What a low opinion of taxpayers he has.

More striking though was the comment from Conservative shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley. He said: ‘We are extremely sceptical about whether public money should be handed over in this manner.’ He went on to say that incentives should encourage people to live healthier lives, not simply hand over taxpayers’ money. But this is exactly the aim of these sorts of schemes, which suggests that Mr Lansley wasn’t paying attention.

Now there is a fair chance he will be in charge of health in this country in a year or so and, who knows, he may be very good at it, although may prove to have the imagination of a sponge.

But either way he is going to have to learn quickly that there is a well of expertise in health promotion that has been engaging with these issues for a long time. To disregard this sort of work because it seems ‘a bit odd’ will be crass and self-defeating - which pretty much sums up modern politics, so I don’t suppose we should be too surprised.

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