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A snapshot from “Public Health Science: A national conference dedicated to new research in public health”

Faraz Ahmed reports from last month’s Public Health Science conference dedicated to new research in public health at the Royal Society of Medicine in London, United Kingdom.

As a public health researcher, I am often asked: “what is public health exactly?” I respond, very enthusiastically, public health is about promoting healthier societies as a whole, through research, policies, interventions and so on and so forth.  The problem is that I confuse those new to the field, as they are more often trying to figure out what background a public health professional might have. Is it medicine, sociology, psychology, epidemiology, or another natural/social science subject? The reality is that a public health professional can be from all of these, or from something entirely different.  Historically, public health was rooted deeply in the environment and the social justice system with some of the greats, such as Edwin Chadwick, Robert Baker and Florence Nightingale, placing emphasis on sanitary reform, eradicating poverty and ‘healthy conditions’ in early nineteenth century.  To paraphrase Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of the Lancet, public health is often wrongly perceived as “soft”, possibly due to its foundation in the social sciences as compared to other medical and natural science subjects.

Arguably, this is not the case. Even the sceptics amongst us will say at least not anymore! Public health has gone through a tremendous evolution in recent years. Last month’s Public Health Science conference dedicated to ‘new research’ in UK public health showcased this brilliantly. As the title suggests, innovation and creativity was the theme of the day. It is important to note that public health encourages multidisciplinary collaborations, which in turn gives birth to amazing ideas.

There were presentations that demonstrated how mathematical modelling and computational programming, coupled with epidemiology and behavioural psychology, can help us predict future trends in the health of the population. Dr Felix Greaves’ work on teaching machines to learn human linguistics and sentiments is exciting as it allows them to extract large amounts of data from the NHS Choices website to assess and improve patient experiences. Of course, there is still much more to accomplish, as Dr Greaves points out, machine’s still don’t understand the meaning of a “cup of tea!” The problem here is that machines cannot distinguish between culturally infused phrases and thereby fail to separate a positive sentiment from negative ones. For example, “this is my cup of tea” can mean good; whereas this is not my cup of tea, or even sarcasm in a sentence can mean the complete opposite. The reality is that although we might be able correct for such phrases and pop cultural references (assuming we are aware of them), the dynamic nature of human expression and languages makes it difficult to capture the complete range of sentiments.

Other things discussed included gene sequencing to expedite the detection of hospital and community transmission for saving lives, the UK‘s role in the EU public health sphere, social media, intercultural studies, and patient versus clinical opinion in the age of YouTube. There were also comprehensive poster presentations, including my own, which focused on utilising faith leaders to promote smoking restrictions as an innovative and targeted approach to health promotion among ethnic minority groups. I not only got a chance to network with great minds of the field and get valuable feedback on my work, but all of the abstracts of the oral and poster presentations were peer-reviewed and published on the Lancet website.

The social sciences are a valuable magnifying glass that enhance our understanding of society, particularly as health is a concept that cannot be treated in isolation. The beauty of public health is that it combines both the Humanities and Sciences by using a multidisciplinary perspective to investigate problems and provide solutions with the potential for great impact.

Public health research is in an extraordinary period of innovation.  The speakers at the conference were united in stating that it is the job of public health researchers to engage society by bringing health professionals, policy makers and the media together to promote health. Public health is about leadership, and giving voice to the vulnerable through evidence-based research. This conference is a refreshing endeavour and a welcome recognition of public health’s role.

Faraz Ahmed is a PhD Student in Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge. He is currently on a Medical Research Council studentship. He has an MSc in International Health from the University of Leeds.

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