Last week, some Bristol-based DECIPHer staff, PhD students and I took a trip to Weston-super-Mare to attend the South West Public Health Scientific Conference. Here, those researching, working in or studying public health get together to discuss high-quality public health science. In my time working with DECIPHer, I’ve attended quite a few conferences but for me, this one stood out.
The main reason I got so much out of the conference was that it was both informative and relevant – no mean feat, as seasoned conference-goers (and organisers!) will know. As could be guessed by the name, all the speakers have some link to the South West of England. As well as making it more feasible to maintain any new links, there’s something particularly engaging about research that’s about the places where you live, work, study. Feeling that ownership of a place engenders a connection to the research that just isn’t there otherwise.
The speakers this year all had some link to the South West of England, that is, with the possible exception of Brendan Bain, Professor of Community Health at the University of the West Indies. He got away with this, though, both by being an extremely engaging and likeable speaker, and by pointing out that “the world is all connected anyway”. This comment seemed increasingly relevant as the conference went on. Despite many of us knowing little about the topic, the issues raised in his plenary session on the response to HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean were surprisingly familiar, and came up time and time again throughout the day.
Monitoring and evaluation
Professor Bain recounted the clash between needing to monitor patterns of sexual behaviour in order to develop an effective treatment programme, and having to do something – anything – now. He explained how a radical but necessary shift in attitudes had taken place, towards a “culture of evaluation”.
Dr. Suzanne Audrey’s plenary session on the Free Swimming scheme in Bristol echoed Professor Bain’s talk – baseline data needs to be gathered, both on the population and on intervention-related outcomes, in order to design, evaluate and improve an intervention. The session stressed the continuing relevance of a point made in the Marmot Review: if an intervention is to address health inequalities, it’s not enough just to get absolute numbers; the impact of an intervention also needs to be measured across the social gradient.
This issue of stigma was another recurring theme, central to Professor Bain’s session and Jo Crichton’s presentation on her research into young people’s social interactions around chlamydia screening. The message was clear, and as relevant to the UK government’s current plans for the ‘troubled families’ programme as to HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean: in any targeted health improvement intervention, care needs to be taken not to stigmatise those involved. Considering the recent suggestion of identifying obese children on their report cards (roundly criticised here), it was reassuring to see this being discussed.
The common image of the Caribbean as beautiful and idyllic means its problems are often overlooked.
Another hugely positive aspect of the conference was the emphasis on collaboration, engagement and feedback. Collaboration (particularly between researchers and those outside academia) was a key focus of the presentations – a very practical example being Angela Beattie’s discussion of working across multiple sectors to track down participants during the Script in a Day feasibility study. Similarly, Dr. Martin O’Flaherty demonstrated how governments, policy-makers and researchers could work together to make far-reaching changes to the landscape of cardio-vascular disease.
In the interactions between delegates, too, potential collaborations were formed: many of the audience’s questions, from researchers, practitioners and policy makers, explored how the research presented could link to their own work. Many of my DECIPHer colleagues, particularly those well-versed in the challenges of developing evidence-based policy, said this opportunity for such direct feedback and engagement was the most valuable aspect of the day. For me, this was what made the conference stand out; it was not only a great experience but a perfect example of what DECIPHer is all about – connecting public health research, policy and practice.
DECIPHer PhD students Harriet Fisher, Jo Crichton and Charlotte Chamberlain and DECIPHer research staff Dr. Suzanne Audrey and Dr. Ruth Kipping presented at the South West Public Health Scientific Conference 2013. Suzanne’s abstract on Free Swimming was highly commended and Ruth’s awarded best abstract.
Catt Turney (@CattTurney) is Research and Knowledge Exchange Assistant at DECIPHer.
Image of Weston-super-Mare – source: Pictures Of England.com. Photo by John Lawrence©