Lessons From Helsinkii

I’m just returning from 36 hours with the Coalition of Partners for Europe, as part of the World Health Organisation. There were a further 2 days of conversations to occur, but I needed to get back to Morecambe Bay. I have learned so much during my short time with this amazing group of people, some new things and other things learning at a new depth or from a different perspective. I am again bowled over by how using tools from the Art of Hosting can bring a diverse group of people, across languages and cultures together to have really important conversations. Rather than write this in long paragraphs, I’m simply going to bullet my learnings, some of them personal, some more corporate, some amusing, some difficult. One thing is for sure: I know much less than I thought I knew!

1) Finland is 100 years old this year. It has a fascinating history. They also have one of the best Public Health systems in the world and are huge at tackling the social determinants of health. We have much to learn from them and their Scandinavian neighbours.

2) People LOVE the idea of a Culture of Joy! There is a tiredness to the WHO but a recognition across the board that there is a need for cultural change and that culture determines an enormous amount in terms of how well organisations function. Remember a culture of joy is built on good, honest, open, encouraging, kind, approachable and vulnerable leadership, with team members feeling a) that they belong and are loved/valued b) that they are trusted to do their work and c) they share a strong sense of vision.

3) There is wide recognition that Social Movements are vital if we are going to break down health inequalities and see the health and wellbeing of all people improve. We simply cannot come up with ideas in board rooms and ‘do them’ to communities. However, there is also fantastic data and learning available to communtities, which can fuel the social movement. Public Health and Primary care must not sit as separate to or aloof from this emerging movement, but must be a key player and protagonist.

4) When dealing with complex systems, it is good to think of them as gardens instead of machines. To whom does the garden of public health belong? Public Health belongs to the public – it is part of the commons. Therefore communities need to be more involved. There are some great examples of community engagement from across Europe. However, we must move from consultancy to co-production and co-design.

5) Helping people live longer at a poorer quality of life is a pointless goal. The league tables and goals we develop must be co-designed with communities. Our markers of health and wellbeing need some reassessment.

6) People everywhere in the Western world are scared of talking about death and this has huge implications for how we spend money in our health systems.

7)  Our European history is so fragile. This causes its own complexities when European people meet together – it all comes into the room with us and requires grace and kindness as we communicate. The quality of relationships within the coalition is fantastic, but more time is needed to develop this.

8) When trying to drink a yoghurt in a taxi, it is important to seal your lips around it well, otherwise you spill it all down your front and look like an idiot.

9) Public health and Primary Care are the bedrock of any health system. I knew this already, but the evidence from around the World is staggering. If these two foundation stones fail, and the staff who deliver these services are not cared for, the entire system collapses.

10) The UK has some of the best public health systems of anywhere in the world. However, the world is watching the decimation of our public health services with dismay. The vital role of prevention and protection that public health has must never be underestimated. If we do not invest in prevention, the consequences for the health system is devastating. The reorganisation of Public Health into our county councils has seen profound cuts to the budgets, as councils have removed the ring fenced budgets. This will almost certainly have detrimental consequences, especially when it comes to tackling our most difficult health and wellbeing issues.

11) When people tell you that all saunas are naked, this may not actually be true and you might end up feeling pretty awkward!

12)  We have much to learn from other areas and nations. Shared learning is key. We can do this without competition, hierarchy or lording it over each other.

13)  Building good relationships is everything.

14) There is a new generation of leaders emerging who are able to deal with complexity, refusing old silos, borders and hierarchies and finding ways to collaborate through good, honest and vulnerable relationships.

15) We need to learn to hold expertise in one hand and humility in the other. The expertise in epidemiology and the mapping of our health and social issues is vital, if we are going to close the health inequality gaps.

16) Public health is dependent on building partnerships. The wider social determinants of health (poverty, housing, adverse childhood experiences, loneliness, education, environmental issues etc) cannot be tackled by the meagre Public Health budgets. Coalition, collaboration and cooperation across many sectors are necessary for us to begin to tackle these hugely complex social justice issues.

17) Due to public health being underfunded, it leaves it wide open to abuse from those who hold the money strings. Lobbies, donors and national governments hold huge power in determining what does and does not receive funding, often despite the evidence.

18) We need leaders who understand the importance of gift economy and making investments into areas which will not serve their ego nor their profile, but will cause huge benefit to many people.

19) Collecting really good data is important. We need to learn to use it well to shape the conversations and change policy and legislation.

20) Public health holds a hugely important voice in calling governments to account for policy decisions that are to the detriment of a nations health. There is now clear evidence that austerity economics is really bad for people’s physical and mental health and is actually causing people to die. Theory must be challenged hard when evidence does not support it.

21)  The poverty truth commission has so much to teach us. No decision about me, without me is for me. this statement made a profound impact on some of the delegates.

22) Doughnut Economics has caught the attention of the coalition.

23) Fazer chocolate is delicious.

24) One of the most challenging truths I learned is that it is often public health workers and doctors/clinicians working on the front line, who are the biggest barriers to working differently with communities and ironically get in the way of the very thing they would love to see happen. This has more to do with the ways we train people to think and work than anything else.

25) Although my talk went well and was hugely well received, I am learning more about the power of story and how to tell our story more effectively.

26) I am grateful that the coalition of partners does not depend on membership of the EU but I am more aware of the pain that Brexit is causing both for me personally and for many friends across Europe.
I understand that Brexit is happening, but day by day it feels to be one of the worst decisions we have ever made as a nation. It is going to cost us over £50 billion to leave, cause untold issues for our ability to trade, decimate the 3rd sector (which btw is the only thing right now stopping our public services from completely collapsing), undo so much great work built through the partnership of our nations and not deliver on any of the false promises made around extra money for our health system or solve our ‘migration issue’. Yes, the EU needs to change, but we have made a monumental error in leaving, rather than reforming it and I still feel we should just apologise and rebuild our bridges rather than burn them.

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Healthy Schools

Last week, I had the privilege of being at Morecambe Bay Community Primary School. The school is a beacon of hope in this area. I found it extremely moving to walk round, with Siobhan Collingwood, the visionary and big-hearted headteacher and see the incredible love displayed by all staff towards the amazing children there. It made me realise again how centrally driven targets often make no sense for so many of our children and communities, especially when the base from which they start is so very different. Siobhan and her team are doing the most incredible job at caring holistically for the children here, dealing with complex behavioural issues with such kindness and brilliance that it brings tears to my eyes, even writing about it. Not only so, but the standard of teaching to then try and help these kids come up to the ‘required standards’, being creative with the resources available, is nothing short of miraculous. I would defy any school inspector to rate this school as anything else than ‘outstanding’.

 
Siobhan and I had a great discussion about the need for health, social care, the voluntary and faith sector, the police and education to work more closely together for the wellbeing of children and young people in our communities. This is already happening in part, through our health and wellbeing partnership and ‘better care together’, but there is far more we can do. We thought about what it might be like if we parachuted fresh into the community now and had to start from scratch, what we might do together…….

 

We would start with stories – we already have many, from the conversations we’ve had in the community, but we want to really listen and be changed by the responses that we hear. We’re so grateful for the work of the ‘poverty truth commission’, helping us to do just that. We would also definitely pool our resources and prioritise key services that would not be taken away once the community begins to thrive, such as parenting classes, cooking lessons, early support services, a radically caring housing sector, preventative policing strategies (now emerging powerfully in partnership with our town and city councils), social care, mental health champions (something Siobhan has already been part of recruiting 150 locally!), children’s centres and adult education centres as a starter for 10. We would overlay this with the things that are working now – there is so much goodness happening and we don’t negate this. We want to ensure that we could see the health inequality gaps close.

 

In order to build on this idea of ‘healthy schools’, we would see kids being active every day – despite, limited grounds space, this school, like many others locally are running a mile a day. There is a great scheme here in which all the kids are learning to cook healthy, nutritious food, building vital life skills needed now and in the future. The breakfast and after school clubs are providing many healthy meals each day for the kids and throughout the summer holidays the schools cook – another woman with an incredibly big heart, opens the hall to feed families, who cannot afford to eat during the long breaks. A huge amount of work is being done around gender equality (have you seen the amazing documentary series “No more boys and girls: can our kids go gender free?” On BBCiplayer?). Kids are also given a huge dose of self esteem and know that they are loved and belong. If only the same level of caring support could be afforded through the transition to high school…..

 

Over the coming months, we hope to co-host some conversations with the community, not on our terms but shaped together with them. Siobhan spent years trying to think of great ideas to get the parents to come into school and interact with her. It wasn’t until the parents set up their own coffee morning in the old garage of the school playground, that she went to meet with them on their terms and started to build some staggeringly life-changing relationships. We know we are changed every time these kind of conversations happen and it blows our world view up so that we can collaborate effectively and co-design services with them. We want to share data with them about health and educational outcomes in order to create a passion for change and do some appreciative enquiry about all the great stuff already embedded in the community. Through these conversations, we want to connect people together and see a social movement for positive change.

The future of Morecambe is bright and full of hope. The communities are strong, the place is beautiful and the people are amazing. Siobhan is just one of many incredible headteachers in this area, committed to one another and this geography through bonds of friendship. If a genuine partnership between health and education can develop here (and it’s part of my vision and ambition to see this done) then who knows what might be possible over the coming months and years?

 

It is time for Morecambe to find its joy again. It has been the joke for too long, but soon it will become the place where the joke is found and everyone will want to know what we’re laughing about.

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