Ticking time bombs: Where are public health’s heroes?

U. LEEDS (US) — Public health “superheroes” are needed to help tackle the growing challenges posed by obesity, alcohol, smoking, and other threats, according to a new analysis.

An international team of researchers is calling for governments and policymakers to recognize the role that public health leaders can play in addressing these significant health challenges.

Their recent work, published in the journal Lancet, suggests potential public health “superheroes” can come from both within public health disciplines, and perhaps more importantly, from outside the profession.


However, the research also questions the ability of current public health professionals to lead and influence policy. Instead, it voices concerns about the “corporatization” of public health in compromising leaders’ abilities to speak out as independent advocates for the health of the public.

One of the lead authors of the research, Darren Shickle, head of the Academic Unit of Public Health at the University of Leeds, says: “Public health as a specialty has been stifled by re-organization and it is critical that both current and new professionals have help in becoming more effective leaders.

“You only have to look at the role that Jamie Oliver has played as someone who has the ability to engage, inspire, and make a difference. But we need to act now to ensure public health leaders at all levels have the skills, resilience, and influence to address the public health challenges of today and the future.”

World Health Organization data reveals the extent of the challenge, indicating that worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980 and that the harmful use of alcohol results in 2.5 million deaths each year.

Tobacco kills nearly 6 million people each year and according to the Department of Health, smoking accounts for over 100,000 deaths every year in the UK alone.

Tom Oliver, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, adds: “We must ensure that leaders across many sectors of society understand the causes and consequences of these major threats to health and well-being.

“More importantly, we must develop leaders who can translate that understanding into political support for evidence-based responses to those threats. The most effective leaders combine systematic analysis of problems and potential solutions, and have an ability to recruit partners and champions for new policies and practices.”

Across the UK, local governments are preparing to take on a wider remit for public health from April 2013, with new duties to improve the health of their communities.

Shickle believes this transference of public health functions to local authorities presents significant challenges but there are also opportunities for both developing current leaders and recruiting new superheroes.

He says: “The new public health system is moving forwards rapidly now, opening up doors to a growing number of effective leaders who can occupy key positions and intervene at all levels to bring about radical changes in social attitudes and behavior.

“Challenges posed by obesity and alcohol alone represent a ticking time bomb, with huge implications for health budgets, but effective public health leaders can play a central role in driving this change.”

Funded by the Worldwide Universities Network, the study called on 3,000 members of the UK Faculty of Public Health to nominate their “superhero.” Ten in-depth interviews were carried out among public health leaders, operating on the international, national, and local level, to identify current and future challenges in public health leadership and training.

Source: University of Leeds