Public Health is the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting the health of communities. It includes the encouragement of healthy approaches to diet, lifestyle, drinking and smoking, as well as addressing health inequalities. It involves a wide range of expertise from disciplines including medicine, nursing, pharmacy, psychology, city planning and the social sciences.
Public Health is particularly important in Wales, which faces some of Europe’s most pressing problems in this regard. Isolated rural areas and former industrial communities both have their own distinct issues. The country has one of the highest rates of obesity in the UK, and there are high levels of smoking and drinking.
In the developing world, there is a different range of problems, including many preventable diseases made worse by malnutrition and poverty.
Public Health research at Cardiff University takes many forms and tackles many health issues on many continents. It has a proud tradition in this field. Professor Archie Cochrane carried out much pioneering work in Cardiff, including establishing a link between coal dust and miners’ chest disease. He also established the principle of the randomised controlled trial as the bedrock of medical research worldwide and was recently named the second most influential figure in the history of the NHS.
The Welsh Assembly Government has identified seven themes for its Public Health Strategy framework, and Cardiff University has research strengths in all seven areas. The group working on socio-economic, cultural and environmental conditions is co-chaired by Professor Mansel Aylward, Director of the Unum Centre for Psychosocial and Disability Research, which adopts a bio-psychosocial approach to common health complaints such as stress, fatigue and aches and pains. The Centre is also working on identifying mental health issues in the workplace and their resolution – another key theme of the Assembly Government Strategy framework.
The University has just agreed to act as the hub for the Wales School for Primary Care Research. This is an all-Wales initiative, backed by the Assembly Government, in keeping with the theme of improving local public health care delivery. The School will provide the research to improve front line care in General Practice, Pharmacy, Nursing and Optometry.
Cardiff is also the Wales hub for the UK Biobank initiative, compiling a huge database of health information about thousands of people. In future years this will help inform prevention and better treatment of a wide range of diseases. This ties in with another theme, that of limiting long-term health conditions, as also does the work of the Unum Centre.
Problems specific to Wales are addressed in a large number of schools. Work by experts in the School of Social Sciences includes conducting a successful trial using a peer-based approach in schools to cut smoking – one of the health-related behaviours the public health framework is addresing.
Researchers in the Social Sciences are also addressing the Assembly Government’s themes around children and healthy eating, for example evaluating the benefits of free school breakfasts in Wales. Meanwhile, colleagues in the School of City and Regional Planning have examined school food reform in the UK, Italy and the US.
Public Health is naturally a major plank of the world-leading research activities of the School of Medicine. A particular problem of the modern world is the growing resistance to antibiotics and the School is part of a cross-European effort to combat unnecessary antibiotic prescription in dealing with this. There is also an international dimension to this work – the School recently conducted a study of the management of the SARS outbreak in China.
Meanwhile, in just over 40 years, the School of Dentistry has transformed the oral health of Wales. The School is also home to the Violence and Society Research Group, which has worked with police, the NHS, local government and other partners in Cardiff to reduce the level of alcohol-related injuries on the city’s streets.