Think tank: NHS needs new approach to tackle unhealthy lifestyles

In collaboration with the Press Association

The NHS needs to be more innovative in its approach to tackling obesity and tobacco-related illnesses, a leading think tank has claimed.

A year-long study by the King's Fund has culminated in the 'Commissioning and Behaviour Change - Kicking Bad Habits' report, which suggests that sophisticated techniques are needed to encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles and reduce their risk of illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.

The report found that smoking, alcohol misuse, poor diet and lack of exercise tend to be deep-rooted social habits that are unlikely to be changed as a result of one-off, short-lived measures.

Instead, study authors Tammy Boyce, Ruth Robertson and Anna Dixon call for an entirely new approach which incorporates social marketing techniques and data analysis tools to identify, target and communicate messages to people.

Evidence suggests that a variety of tactics are needed for public health programmes to be effective, and the experts note that all public health programmes should involve a robust evaluation of impact so that future policymakers know what does and does not work.

Dr Anna Dixon, director of policy at the King's Fund and one of the report authors, noted that obesity, tobacco and alcohol represent the biggest challenges faced by the NHS and that the methods used to promote public health need to be more modern.

"The reasons people persist with unhealthy habits are complex," she explained. "It's often about changing deep-rooted social habits that can become addictive, rather than just helping people make better choices as individuals.

"Financial incentives and information campaigns can be useful but are far more likely to lead to real and long-term changes in people's behaviour when paired with other interventions like tailored information and personalised support."

Dr Dixon said that the lack of evidence showing what does and does not work needs to be "urgently addressed" so that money is not wasted on ineffective interventions.

The report also notes that many NHS staff lack the skills and incentives to help people lead healthier lifestyles and recommends that frontline staff should be more proactive in promoting healthy habits to patients.

Dr Dixon added: "Encouraging healthier lifestyles is the job of all staff working within the health service, not just those working specifically in public health. GPs, pharmacists and hospital staff - the people that interact with patients every day - need to be trained in behaviour change techniques to give them the confidence to start conversations about people's unhealthy habits and to be effective in influencing their lifestyles."

Finally, the expert said that all government bodies and local health agencies will need to work together to create an NHS that promotes good health.

She concluded: "The responsibility to promote good health, as well as treat sickness, needs to be fully embedded in national policies, PCT's priorities, care providers' standards and performance indicators, and staff and service contracts."

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