Helping local authorities deliver public health programmes that are fit for the future

Herts is one of four academic research partners in the NIHR (National Institute Health Research) PHIRST programme (Public Health Intervention Responsive Studies Team). The programme directly connects local authorities with research experts to evaluate and provide guidance on public health initiatives that aim to improve people’s health in their local communities and to help reduce health inequalities in the UK.

There is a raft of innovative schemes to improve public health and reduce health inequalities across the UK, but local authorities often lack the resources and funding required for a full evaluation of the impact of their public health intervention programmes. This means there is limited proof of success of these initiatives, and this can hamper securing more funding for other non-NHS public health schemes.

By working in partnership with researchers, local authorities can gain insights and learnings about their public health schemes, enabling them to review and improve the delivery of services and ensure they are tailored to people’s needs. Researchers are teamed with projects across the UK that target a wide range of public health issues, from improving healthy eating to supporting recovery from drug and alcohol abuse.

A team from the University of Hertfordshire has been working with the Welsh Local Government Association to evaluate the impact of moving its National Exercise Referral Scheme online during the pandemic. The programme provides tailored, supervised sessions of physical activity for people aged over 16 who aren’t regularly physically active and are at risk of or currently experiencing a long term or chronic health condition, ranging from conditions such as back pain to an increased risk of diabetes to mental health conditions. Clients are referred to the programme by their GP or health professional.

However, as COVID-19 restrictions meant sports facilities and group exercise sessions had to largely remain closed for much of 2020, the programme pivoted to run its session online, delivering virtual exercise classes instead.

Our researchers are analysing the programme’s participant data to understand if more people benefitted from the ability to access exercise sessions online, at the click on a button from home, rather than having to attend classes in person. The team is looking at engagement data from pre-pandemic, during the pandemic and after restrictions had been lifted to determine if there’s strong demand for the sessions to continue being delivered online into the future. Do people in the programme want a return to group sessions in-person, or a hybrid approach that offers a mix of sessions online and offline.

Our researchers will provide recommendations around which format works best for ensuing clients join the exercise sessions, actively participate and ultimately gain the biggest benefit from the programme.

Find out more about our Centre for Research in Public Health and Community Care

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By Katie Newby, Associate Professor in Health Behaviour Change