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Prevention and early action are key to positive, healthy outcomes

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    Jo Davies

Jo Davies is the manager of WILD Young Parents Project in Cornwall, winner of the 2018 GSK IMPACT Awards. Alongside funding and a leadership development programme, winning charities can also join the GSK IMPACT Awards Development Network, which has over 80 member organisations.

The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has named prevention as one of his three priorities. He talks of a ‘radical shift in approach’ towards preventive care centred around individuals, keeping people healthy, treating problems quickly, and empowering people to manage their own health. This ‘radical shift’ would bring the Health Secretary’s plans in line with the approach of many of us in the charity sector, who have been promoting prevention and early action for years.

At WILD Young Parents Project, we work with young mums and dads in Cornwall, starting from when they are expecting a baby. The earliest years of a child’s life are crucial in establishing the building blocks of a healthy, happy future. The early years are when the magic happens: when a baby builds attachment with their parents, and their brain grows. For the children of young parents, it is a moment to be seized, where prevention and early action give the best chance for children to have positive, life-long, healthy outcomes.

Working with young parents, we know that prevention and early action make sense. National research shows that young parents have increased risk of mental illness, domestic abuse, criminal-justice experience, poverty, poor diet, problems with substances, and social care interventions – risks which can have a huge impact on their children. Therefore, to help young parents with holistic support, we, like many smaller charities, need to work with other organisations across the charity sector and with health and social care and statutory bodies.

But spending cuts have chipped away at early help services across the UK. The Lloyd’s Bank Foundation and New Policy Institute have just published ‘A quiet crisis: local government spending on disadvantage’, in which they state that:

‘research shows that 97% of total cuts in spending on disadvantage have fallen on the fifth most deprived councils, despite them also having higher numbers of people in need’.

Here in Cornwall, the second poorest area in Northern Europe, many of these problems have increased for our WILD families, where two-thirds now experience parental mental ill health, and over half experience domestic abuse and conflict.

So how do we act early, when services are so depleted?

  • We aim to be creative in approach, by working closely together with other agencies and combining resources and expertise. None of us can provide the answers to a family’s problems, but by working together we can best help them find their own way. We can educate and help each other do this, even sometimes just by asking ‘why not?’ when met with organisational resistance. We work with so many health providers – in midwifery, health visiting, dental health, perinatal mental health and sexual health, for example. By doing this, we have been able to improve outcomes. For example, twice as many young-parent families in Cornwall now have dental care through our partnership working. We are currently developing priority community access to long-acting reversible contraceptives with Cornwall’s sexual health hub.

  • We are working with our new national partners through the GSK IMPACT Awards Development Network, learning about what works well, sharing ideas and accessing innovation. The Network has expanded our horizons considerably and helped us to make useful links with other organisations, even if we are not geographically close down here in Cornwall.

  • We are enabling young parents to voice their needs, and to believe that their children have a right to a healthy future. All families should know that their children have rights, under UN convention article 24, to ‘the best possible health’. We have a duty to ensure that our government is honouring this obligation, especially for our most vulnerable children.

We need to use our collective voices to remind Matt Hancock that he needs to put his money where his mouth is and counteract the cuts made to preventive services in recent years. There needs to be a co-ordinated and rigorous early response to address complex needs, with integrated joint working and all egos set aside. It’s the obvious answer. If we know that babies born in disadvantaged circumstances are more likely to experience illness, trauma and unhappiness, and die younger, then surely we have a moral duty to prevent this from happening.

The GSK IMPACT Awards are funded by GSK and managed in partnership with The King’s Fund.