HealthWise Wales: Protecting tomorrow by helping today
There are many exciting research projects taking place across the country but none quite on the scale of HealthWise Wales – an ambitious initiative that is giving the public its say and collecting information for the health of a nation.
Owain Clarke, BBC Wales Health Correspondent talks to Professor Shantini Paranjothy (MBBCh 1995), Population Health Research Theme Lead for the College of Biomedical and Life Sciences and Scientific Lead for HealthWise Wales.
Owain Clarke: Tell me a bit about yourself and how you reached this point. Why are you interested in population studies?
Shantini Paranjothy: I trained as a doctor at the University of Wales College of Medicine and started working as a junior doctor in England, in obstetrics and gynaecology. Quite early on in my career, I learned about using data to inform how we make decisions about patient care. So I went off and did a master’s degree in medical statistics and a PhD in epidemiology and learned that I really enjoyed understanding how we can use data to inform the decisions we make about the best way to provide care and to ensure that the medicine we practise is based on evidence that’s meaningful.
Looking at many people and comparing them was a kind of craft that was pioneered here in Cardiff by the likes of Professor Archie Cochrane CBE and Professor Peter Elwood OBE with the Caerphilly cohort. They were quite defining pieces of research at the time. Explain to me more about how the sense of using what you see in populations to test evidence has really transformed medicine.
There are lots of examples of that, from the early work of Sir Richard Doll, who looked at the effect of smoking, to the Caerphilly study where Professor Peter Elwood OBE showed that by adhering to the five healthy behaviours you can reduce your risk of dementia. And that’s quite a powerful piece of information really, particularly when you contrast it with data from the Chief Medical Officer for Wales’ report which shows that a very small proportion of people, probably about 3%, actually do manage to do all of the five healthy behaviours.
So you’re looking at a whole host of people and asking questions. Can you explain to me the sorts of questions that you can now ask that you may not have been able to ask before?
We can now ask questions that will help us find out things like why some people who live in a particular type of area have poorer health outcomes or more hospital admissions than others – what are the contextual factors that influence these differences. And we can look at how various environmental and social factors during the life course explain these differences, investigating their impact on future outcomes.
Some may have seen the adverts on TV and some may have read about HealthWise Wales, inviting people to take part in this big project which is meant to better the health of the nation, put simply. How would you describe it?
It’s a great opportunity to take part in something that will contribute to the health of the nation. What that means is taking part in a big research project where your information will be used to answer those important questions the NHS needs answers to, in order to plan their service for the future. And the information gathered also allows scientists to develop better and targeted treatments.
In terms of its scale and ambition, is it unique?
There are big studies like this in the UK but what’s really unique about this one is that we are looking at a younger age group which gives us the opportunity to put more of a focus on prevention. Because we’re collecting data from an earlier age and following up, we can really start to learn what happens before disease develops. Also, comparisons on a large scale at population level are very powerful and informative for planning healthcare services.
Who will be suggesting questions?
It’s mainly the research community that has been asking questions, but involving the public is a central part of the project. We have a public delivery board too, and we’re working with them to develop opportunities for the public to work with researchers to suggest their own research questions and prioritise the work that is being done through HealthWise Wales.
What’s your ambition for the project?
If we reach the 260,000 target, I think it will make a significant difference to the population overall in Wales because we know that people who take part in our research studies actually have better health and better outcomes, just through the process of getting involved. I think it can make a difference to the population on a lot of levels, with the public being better informed and having a better understanding of research and how they can contribute to making things better in the future.
It will also make Wales a great place to come and do research and make a step change to our ability to understand how to prevent and improve outcomes for the future. It’s also about making evidence-based practice a part of our culture, putting a platform in place so there’s a more streamlined process of evaluating and then turning that into policy, rather than having to set each study up every single time.
What are your next steps?
At the minute we have the media campaign going on so our focus is on recruitment and making sure we’re using all possible opportunities. For example, we’re training NHS nurses so that they are knowledgeable about the project and can talk about the leaflets with patients. We’re also continuing to develop new questionnaires to ensure the relevance and quality of the information collected for scientific studies.
Read the full interview
This is a shortened version of the full interview that features in the summer 2016 issue of Challenge Cardiff, our research magazine.