News Video | Policy | GPs | Hospitals | Medical | Mental Health | Welfare | Search

 


Social networks key to improving health in NZ

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Social networks key to improving health in NZ

Turning conventional thinking about health and healthcare on its head by championing social networks is vital if New Zealanders want to improve their health outcomes, and ultimately save the nation money, says a leading public health expert.

Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Health Professor Paul McDonald spoke to members of the Auckland Regional Public Health Service, which provides core public health services across three Auckland district health boards.

“The old way of thinking just doesn’t cut it. Most people think significant public health challenges — heart disease, cancer, diabetes and related risk factors like tobacco use and obesity — are medical problems with social fallout. But in reality, they are social problems with medical consequences.

“What if we thought about heart disease, stroke, cancer, respiratory disease, type II diabetes, and certain types of mental illness as ‘communicable’ conditions which are spread through social, cultural, economic, and political systems — rather than spread principally by viruses or bacteria?”

Professor McDonald says the emphasis needs to shift from personal lifestyle “choices” and individual primary care clinical treatment to collective responsibility. “Only then will we be able to alter the transmission systems and carriers of disease through economic policy, employer practices, exposure to media, and exposure to health-enhancing products,” he says.

“NZ has higher rates of income inequality than the OECD average. 15 percent of Kiwis live in poverty. And when it comes to our children, it’s not good news. Nearly 20 percent of children in this country aged 15 and older do not have enough contact with family and friends. 16 percent felt lonely in the past year. Nearly one in four of those aged 15 and older have low levels of trust in others.

“For adults, there are similar worrying trends. People who smoke also have high body mass indexes (BMIs). They are sedentary, prone to depression and anxiety. And they’re marginalised from mainstream society so they tend to cluster together which only exacerbates their challenges. Let’s stop blaming individuals. Let’s accept that we have failed them as a society and that we all collectively must work together to solve these problems. That’s what it will take to improve health and wellbeing for not only this generation of New Zealanders but for those to come.”

Professor McDonald says classic epidemiological models have misunderstood and under-estimated the important of social influences by reducing it to the notion of social support.

“Research now tells us that smoking, obesity, as well as smoking cessation and obesity reduction are a consequence of complex social networks. This means people we don’t know – total strangers – may be powerful and as-yet-unexplored sources of future public health intervention. It’s far more effective at making us healthier than running to the doctor.”

Professor McDonald says this radical topsy-turvy approach will not only improve the health of all Kiwis and fundamentally reduce illness and disability in the long term, it will also cost less and save New Zealand taxpayers a lot of money.

“One American study found increasing public health measures saved $596 billion and 4.5 million deaths over 25 years. This compares to an extra cost of $1.1 trillion for traditional preventative and chronic care to save 3.4 million deaths.”

Professor McDonald has worked extensively in tobacco reduction, and says, typically, nicotine addiction is “managed” by pushing more pharmaceuticals and referring people to medical professionals. “But these efforts are expensive and only marginally effective at a population level compared to alternative approaches.”

He has a better solution — certainly for younger smokers. “I found that being connected to your community is highly related to whether young adults smoke or try to quit. While still important for seniors, connectedness plays less of a role in smoking status.”

Professor McDonald says we need to focus interventions on those ‘friends of friends’ who have made recent changes, to surround young people with a large group of stable low-risk people. And the burgeoning world of social media is a great place to start to change unhealthy behaviours. “Use Facebook and other virtual tools to induce social contagion,” he says.

A study in 2012 changed voter turnout among 61 million people by encouraging people to tell their Facebook friends whether they had voted yet. This is a classic example of how powerful changing the dynamics of networks can affect large groups of people – rather than targeting individuals at risk.

“We need more collective actions that harness the power of networks to make NZ healthier and happier.”

A 2013 study indicated improvement in social cohesion and reducing poverty were each more than twice as powerful in reducing disability and chronic disease among Canadian adults compared to primary care or health behaviour interventions.

“There’s an election on and this is something all politicians need to address. Voters need to ask: Why are all the political parties trying to outbid each another in the health sector? It will cost us hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years and the reality is we just don’t have it. But if they opt to back social interventions rather than pouring money into increasingly costly medical care, they would profoundly improve health and wellbeing across the country at a much lower cost.”

Professor Paul McDonald is the Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Health at Massey University. He is an internationally recognised researcher and scholar, his work informs public health policies, programmes, and human resource capacity. His most recent work explored building human capacity and complex planning models for public and population health. Professor McDonald holds a PhD in Health Studies (population health).

ENDS

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
 
 
Culture Headlines | Health Headlines | Education Headlines

 

Eddie Izzard: UK Comedy Legend Returns

Hailed as one of the foremost stand up comedians of his generation. Star of stage and screen. Tireless supporter of charity. Runner. Political campaigner. Fashion Icon... February 2015, Eddie Izzard will bring his massive FORCE MAJEURE world tour to New Zealand with tickets going on sale at 10am on Tuesday 28th October. More>>

Festival Starts 28 Oct: Improv Fest Makes Up New Show

For any other festival, finding out less than two weeks from showtime that half the cast of a programmed show can’t make it to New Zealand would be a nightmare. Instead, the New Zealand Improv Festival Director Jennifer O’Sullivan saw an opportunity ... More>>

NZ Music Awards Finalists: Lorde, Sol3 Mio Top 2014 Tuis Charge

Lorde has taken the music world by storm during the past year and she co-leads the 2014 Tui charge with five finalist spots. Joining her is newcomer family opera trio, Sol3 Mio. They are followed closely by Ladi6 and David Dallas, both up for four awards each. More>>

From 'Luther' Creator: Major New Zealand Crime Series For BBC

Libertine Pictures and writer Neil Cross have teamed up with leading international TV producer Carnival Films to develop a major new crime series set in Rotorua. Libertine will develop the contemporary drama series with Carnival, producer of internationally-acclaimed British period drama Downton Abbey, for the BBC. More>>

ALSO:

Family Statement: Death Of Ewen Gilmour

“Ewen was a much loved and cherished member of our family, he was a larger than life character and by his very nature was kind, generous and always giving of his time to those who asked for his help." More>>

ALSO:

Auckland: St. Jerome's Laneway Festival - Line-Up Announced

Traversing seven cities and three countries, the festival has well and truly settled into its home in each state. From the grassy knolls and towering silos at home in Auckland, to the sparkling backdrop of the Maribyrnong... More>>

Scoop Review Of Books: No Longer An Island

Simon Nathan reviews 'Zealandia: Our Continent Revealed': The idea that New Zealand is part of a large submerged continent is not new... There was renewed interest in the extent of offshore New Zealand from the 1970s onwards with the start of offshore drilling for oil and gas, and this was given impetus by a UN agreement which allowed countries to claim an Extended Continental Shelf (ECS). More>>

Art: Simon Denny Recreates Kim Dotcom’s Personal Effects

Who owns what? How has the internet changed our relation to the world? These are two of the many questions Simon Denny raises in the latest exhibition at the Adam Art Gallery, opening on Saturday 4 October. More>>

ALSO:

Get More From Scoop

 
 

LATEST HEADLINES

 
 
 
 
Health
Search Scoop  
 
 
Powered by Vodafone
NZ independent news