Investing in society
Issued: Fri, 06 May 2011 15:47:00 BST
Working from the lab bench to the patient bed, our experts continue to seek ways of improving the health of our city, Scotland and beyond. Now, with the establishment of a Research Institute of Health & Wellbeing at Glasgow, academics and clinicians, scientists and social scientists, patients and policymakers are finding new ways to communicate in order to reach a common goal: ensuring that the health and wellbeing of future generations is better than the one before.
'I'd rather interact with people than with test tubes... but it's important to work with researchers who are interested in lab work too.' Glasgow Professor Sally-Ann Cooper is talking about her passion for conducting research that can help to reduce inequalities in health. An expert in learning disabilities, she's a psychiatrist and a member of the University's Centre for Population & Health Sciences based at Gartnavel Royal Hospital.
'People with learning disabilities are one of the most disadvantaged groups in society,' she explains, 'and that's just not right. I want to reduce the inequality that they currently experience and improve their mental health. This means that I like to conduct applied research because it makes a difference in people's lives. I'm a clinical academic, so while the work that I do does involve large databases and a certain degree of number crunching, we also do qualitative interviewing; it's definitely interacting with people.'
There are 25,000 people in Scotland with learning disabilities today. Professor Cooper and her colleagues remain in constant communication with many of them, sharing findings and discovering new areas where research is needed. 'Where it's appropriate, we have people with learning disabilities on our steering groups for research,' she says.
One project that Professor Cooper is currently involved with is exploring whether there could be benefits in offering health checks to those with learning difficulties as standard. 'We know that people with learning disabilities consult their GPs and practice nurses much less often than everyone else, even though they have higher levels of health needs. What tends to happen is that any problems go undetected and unmanaged. They only present themselves much later, and by this time, they can have multiple complications. We're trying to see if there are ways to reduce that,' she says.
'That's my own personal research,' Professor Cooper continues, 'but we have many other researchers in the Centre for Population & Health Sciences who are looking at factors that affect a large chunk of society, because we're interested in improving the health of our population as a whole, which also includes investigating ways of tackling the "big killers": problems like cardiovascular and respiratory disease.' Professor Jill Pell, for example, has recently completed important research that has evaluated the impact of the introduction of the ban on smoking in enclosed public places in Scotland. 'That, of course, is of a benefit, potentially, to all of us,' says Professor Cooper. 'We're also interested in working with our colleagues in social sciences, like Professor Nick Watson, whose research is in disability studies.'
Professor Watson is Director of the Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research. Professor Watson explains: 'We work closely with organisations of and for disabled people, and we see our work as looking to present evidence about the barriers they face. Rather than looking at disability as a problem of the individual, we focus on the problems that disabled people contend with when they try to access society.'
One project, involving sociologist Dr Kevin Paterson, is exploring what it's like to grow old with cerebral palsy. 'When people talk about disability and old age, and this demographic time bomb we're facing, mostly they're thinking about people who acquire a disability as a result of growing old,' Professor Watson says. 'But because of improved medical techniques, and also because people with disabilities no longer live in long-stay institutions, there is a new cohort who are ageing in the community. They have distinct care needs that are associated with the normal patterns of ageing that everyone experiences, but also they have other issues to do with the impact of ageing with cerebral palsy.'
It's a common approach, Professor Watson says, for disability to be thought of exclusively as a childhood issue, something which is very much not the case. And given the current economic climate, it's a difficult time to be calling for more support and more care. 'It's estimated that £9.4 billion is going to be taken out of support for disabled people as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review,' he says, 'and we're also finding that media representation of disabled people is currently shifting – the language being used is changing to words like “burden”, as opposed to "citizen", for example.'
Against this backdrop, Professor Watson and Dr Jo Ferrie have been working with Capability Scotland and Margaret Blackwood Housing to prepare a report about the removal of the mobility element of the living disability allowance from people who live in care homes. This was taken to the Scottish Parliament in March, to help to provide a response to the second reading of the Welfare Report Bill. 'We're always looking to conduct sociological research and do work that is directly applicable to people's lives and will have impact,' explains Professor Watson. 'There is no other centre like this in Scotland, so we have a unique role to play. We are the only institution in Scotland to offer teaching in disability studies at Masters level, and our PhD students are conducting a range of research, from exploring what it's like for disabled people living in Malaysia to discovering the impact of anti-discrimination legislation on young disabled people in the UK.'
With the creation of a new Research Institute of Health & Wellbeing, it seems that new collaborations, opportunities and partnerships aimed at reducing inequality and improving health in Scotland and beyond are on the horizon.
'I'm very interested to work with some of the more lab-based sciences,' says Professor Watson. 'It would be great to get involved with things like stem cell research. I've done quite a lot of work on how people rehabilitate following spinal cord injury, so obviously I'd be interested to collaborate with people who are doing work repairing spinal cord injury. I think that the new institute has a lot of potential to bring together colleagues for new projects.'
Professor of Social & Public Health Sally Macintyre agrees. 'Health and wellbeing is more than doctors and the NHS,' she says. 'It's so clear that how we live and the environments that we live in have a large impact on our health, so the creation of this institute does provide huge potential for bringing people with different skills together to investigate that.'
Currently, a range of research is taking place that investigates this relationship between health and how we live. 'We're doing a study at the moment in schools in the central belt of Scotland which is looking at what films young people watch, and then examining their smoking, alcohol and drug use behaviour,' explains Professor Macintyre. 'We have a programme on sexual health and reproductive health and we do a lot of that work in some parts of Africa. We collaborate with Scandinavia, because if you think about it, Scotland, with its population of six million, is quite similar in some ways to places like Sweden, Finland and Norway. So we do comparisons on changes over time in heart disease and we also examine environmental influences on health: things like air pollution, for example. I think it would be fair to say that Glasgow has an unusually large range of people across all of these disciplines, and strengths in a number of different areas relevant to health and wellbeing.'
At the launch of the institute in February, the scope of the interest within the University and beyond became clear. 'There is interest in this field across all four colleges of the University,' says Professor Macintyre. 'We want to explore topics that cross-cut disease categories: things like smoking, poverty, lifestyle; and we have found that there are ways for lots of people from different groups to get involved, whether that's those from computing science, who have a human-computer interaction group that can do interesting and relevant work with people with different disabilities, or perhaps someone from the Centre for the History of Medicine, who do a lot on the history of public health campaigns.'
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