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What Can Welsh Universities Do To Improve the Health of People in Wales?

There is a substantial body of evidence that lifestyle has an impact on health. Reduced physical activity in children and adults, as well as excessive calorie intake has resulted in increasing obesity in the population. Obesity is associated with an increased risk of potentially lethal diseases such as diabetes, raised blood pressure, stroke and coronary artery disease. As well as increasing mortality and shortening life span, diabetes can cause blindness, loss of limbs, kidney failure and an increased risk of congenital anomalies in the babies of mothers with diabetes. Conversely, there is very strong evidence that increased physical activity and reduced calorie intake can reduce the problem of obesity, prevent the onset of diabetes for those who are susceptible to it and reduce mortality.

Improving the Health of People in Wales

The Welsh Assembly Government’s consultation document, "Well Being in Wales", emphasised that health is not the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government or the NHS alone. Everyone in Wales shares responsibility. The Government’s role is to help create the conditions necessary to help people to improve their health. Over the next few weeks and months, we shall be hearing about a major Welsh Assembly Government initiative called "Health Challenge Wales". This is a challenge to the nation. It must be owned by individuals, by communities and by all organisations and groups in Wales and by the media. All can contribute to national joint efforts to improve levels of health in Wales, and all can benefit from it. Thus it is a partnership between Government, organisations in all sectors, and the public — people of all ages, backgrounds and circumstances.

So what can Universities do? What we do and what we can do is provide education, research, outreach and clinical service. We already provide many undergraduate and postgraduate courses which are relevant to exercise, to nutrition and to psychology. we should establish a database of all these courses, identify where there are gaps and decide whether those gaps in provision should be filled in. Furthermore, what we can do, is to come up with innovative ideas for new courses that clearly link lifestyle with health. In research, we have already begun to explore the way forward with a symposium on exercise and sports medicine and science held last July. Arising from this was a proposal that we should establish an all-Wales Virtual Institute of Exercise Medicine and Science. There is now a clear commitment to take this forward.

With outreach, we know that there is a considerable amount going on. We need to learn from good practice and replicate it. There are "Healthy Universities" that focus on the health of their students and staff. Some Universities are already "local heroes" providing access to facilities for people (especially children) in local communities. This provides a tangible interface between the local University and its community, enabling improved access and wider participation in Higher Education as well as providing a much needed service. Our students are an untapped resource of expertise (e.g. in sports science and nutrition) and our best ambassadors. This outreach activity could also include screening children to detect obesity and associated ill health problems at an early age whilst at the same time, identifying enthusiastic and gifted people with aspirations to sporting excellence. Furthermore, properly trained University students as part of a "Healthy University" programme can provide education in Schools, for example, in lifestyle and heart disease, cancer awareness, sexual health, drugs and substance abuse and lifestyle and genetic susceptibility to disease. Of course, outreach does not have to be confined to the Universities and their local communities. It should be possible for Universities to engage with local industry in supporting the whole area of public education through funding, local advertising and use of facilities. Clinical services for people with exercise related injuries are patchy across Wales. They are mainly delivered in primary care and in the private sector. There is relatively easy access for elite athletes but not for the general public. If we encourage people to be more active we must provide services that will treat injury quickly and effectively and equally important, provide education on how to prevent injury.

What resources do we have? We have physical resources but more importantly we have people. There are internationally distinguished researchers, teachers and clinicians in all the relevant disciplines in HEI’s in Wales. Moreover in Wales, we also have academics and NHS colleagues who are known throughout the world for their expertise. People such as a senior physiotherapist in the Great Britain Olympic Squad, the Chief Medical Officers for the Welsh Rugby Union, Glamorgan County Cricket Club and the British Boxing Board of Control, the team doctors for the Welsh National Rugby Team, for Cardiff City and Swansea City Football Clubs, a former international hockey player and an Olympic discus thrower to name but a few! All of these people are committed to improve lifestyle for everybody.

With the Welsh Assembly Government’s commitment, to addressing the problems of lifestyle and health, at the highest level, HEI’s now have a real opportunity to make a major contribution to the future health and well-being of people in Wales. There are numerous stakeholders with whom we must work, not only within HEI’s and HEFCW, but in Government, Local Authorities, Health Promotion Division of the Welsh Assembly Government, the Food Standards Agency, the food industry, the Wales Centre for Health, the Sports Council for Wales, the Countryside Council for Wales, the insurance industry and many others could contribute to knowledge, influence policy making and effect change. I believe that HEI’s in Wales must respond to Health Challenge Wales, decide what unique contributions we can make, and work with other stakeholders to make a difference — the need is urgent; let’s get started!

First published in the Western Mail