Report calls for massive expansion to workforce supporting the public’s health

A new report from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) outlines plans for a range of different occupations including housing professionals, cleaners and hairdressers to support efforts to improve the public’s health.  With only 40,000 people estimated to be part of the core public health workforce, and in light of the crisis in lifestyle health issues, the report calls for anyone who has “the opportunity or ability to positively impact health and wellbeing through their work” to join the wider public health workforce. 

Rethinking the Public Health Workforce identifies a number of occupations, who have already started to support public health work. It builds on the findings of a separate paper Understanding the Wider Public Health Workforce which has also been jointly published by the Centre for Workforce Intelligence (CfWI) and the RSPH today.

Key findings of the joint research commissioned by the Department of Health, Public Health England and Health Education England and produced by the CfWI and RSPH includes the following estimates for professionals delivering public health outside of core healthcare settings:

  • 172, 686 Allied Health Professionals (AHPs) (including physiotherapists and podiatrists)
  • 292,000 Protective service occupations (including fire service, police, ambulance)
  • 243,000 Welfare and housing professionals
  • 72, 985 Pharmacists and their teams

Many of these occupations have regular contact with the public - the fire service undertakes some 670,000 safe and well checks each year, AHPs see over 4 million patients every week and 95% of the public visit a pharmacy at least once a year. The report also identifies a new tranche of occupations who could support public health efforts including:

  • 803, 000 kitchen, bar and waitering staff
  • 639, 000 cleaners
  • 452,000 public service and associate professionals such as postal workers
  • 222,000 hairdressers and related services

Separate research commissioned by the RSPH shows that there is a public readiness to trust health promotion advice from many of these occupations, with 9 in 10 trusting the advice from pharmacists and AHPs.  There is also a readiness for the public to heed lifestyle health advice from occupations who are far-removed from public health, with over half the public trusting such advice from the fire service* and 1 in 4 ready to accept such advice from hairdressers and shop workers.

 Through Rethinking the Public Health Workforce, the RSPH has set out some suggested areas that, with appropriate training, the wider workforce could support public health activities in including:

  • Point of care testing including body fat measurements, finger prick testing, blood pressure, BMI.
  • Behaviour change programmes, healthy conversations, and signposting the public on to more specialist services.
  • Social prescribing including screening the public for lifestyle health conditions such as inactivity, low level anxiety or social isolation.
  • Assisting the public to overcome physical and emotional barriers to health advice including access to GPs and initiating conversations about health.

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive, Royal Society for Public Health and Chair of the People in UK Public Health Government Advisory Group welcomed the report:

“An extra 15 million people would be a huge addition to the public health workforce and the potential benefits to the public’s health are huge. By engaging with these occupations to become advocates not only might we help support these individuals to improve their own health and wellbeing, but by reaching out to the people they interact with could be significant. Many of these occupations enjoy trusted relationships with the public and have golden opportunities to reinforce and support conversations about lifestyle health issues in a sensitive and non-judgemental fashion.   It is clear from our research that this is already happening and we want to industrialise this approach as a new way of helping improve the public’s health. RSPH is committed to engaging with individuals and representatives from as many occupations as possible to overcome potential barriers and identify any support or training needs that exist in order to grow this vital workforce.

 Vic Rayner, CEO, Sitra commented: 

I am delighted to see the role of the Housing and Housing Support workforce recognised in this ground breaking report on the wider workforce. It is important to have housing recognised as an early adopter and our recent research on behalf of PHE showed that there were already large amounts of activity within the housing sector which was contributing to the delivery of health conversations, supporting positive behaviour change and increased partnership working across health and housing. The housing workforce has huge amounts to contribute to this positive agenda, as one of the key trusted professionals crossing the threshold. In addition, housing provides a critical piece of the healthy living jigsaw, contributing invaluable expertise on the impact of the built environment on an individual’s ability to enjoy healthy independent lives at home.