Improving public health requires solutions outside of traditional health policy, finds a new British Academy report

30 Nov 2023

Despite being most often associated with the NHS, health policy requires broader and more creative structural solutions to be most effective, according to a new report by the British Academy.

Lessons from the History of British Health Policy’ combines a timeline of key changes to UK health policy since 1848 with key insights and lessons for policymakers. It finds that, throughout history, improvement in public health has only been partly related to improvement to health services and the establishment of the NHS.

The research shows that social and economic factors, such as access to good food, quality housing, secure employment and reduced pollution, have consistently improved health outcomes throughout history. The report argues that to improve public health outcomes, government should consider policies spanning all these areas.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also cited as an important lesson in health policy development and implementation, with non-pharmaceutical interventions such as lockdown measures demonstrating the extensive political, economic and social consequences of health policy. It builds upon similar themes which were explored in ‘The COVID Decade: understanding the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19' report, which considered the long-term societal impacts of the coronavirus.

The report is the latest in a British Academy series of Policy Histories which draw on expertise from across the humanities and social sciences and find historical insights to inform policy making. Similar themes were explored in an earlier British Academy project, Covid-19 and Society: Shaping the Covid Decade, that considered the long-term societal impacts of Covid-19.

Professor Pat Thane FBA, co-founder of the History and Policy Network, said:

“As the COVID-19 pandemic, the HIV/AIDS crisis and the UK government’s proposed legislation to ban smoking all demonstrate, health policy cuts across all spheres of society, from the political to the economic and the social. Now more than ever we need a comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach to health policy that draws on expertise in all areas, including the SHAPE disciplines (social sciences, humanities and arts for people and the economy.)

“This timely report does just that, convening expertise from a variety of perspectives. The findings go beyond the short-sighted tendency to focus solely on the NHS, recognising the integral role of social factors such as access to quality food, secure housing and stable employment in shaping public health.”

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