Joining Forces with Public Health

Colin Charan-Kumpula has worked in Public Health since 2006 where he has been involved in a range of national population health issues from both policy and operational perspectives. Colin balances work with meditation, art, music, dance, functional fitness and real food.

I often hear my colleagues quoting the World Health Organization’s definition of public health i.e. “the art and science of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organised efforts of society and informed choices of society, organisations, public and private, communities and individuals”. More often than not, this quote is accompanied by evidence showing that personal health care is a less important determinant of health than behaviour and the environment. Paradoxically, investment decisions within most developed health systems would suggest the opposite to be true.   Whilst a very small proportion of overall funding for health is utilised for prevention and supporting people to be healthy, the services, workforce and infrastructure that is in place to support these goals is an important component of the overall health system.

With ever increasing discourse surrounding the rise of non-communicable diseases and conditions, it is easy to lose sight of the extraordinary gains in health that have been made over the last century.  The story of public health is often told through the lens of various efforts and successes surrounding the prevention and control of communicable diseases.  John Snow’s research and action (removal of a water pump handle) to stem a devastating cholera outbreak in London in 1854, is for instance an undeniably simple and appealing story for exalting both epidemiology and public health action.   More recently however, significant improvements in other areas including tobacco control, road safety, family planning, and heart disease and stroke mortality have also been recognised as the result of targeted public health investment and interventions.

A key way of bolstering the profile and influence of ancestral health will be to integrate its principles more systematically across all parts of society through strengthening the evidence base and widening individual knowledge.

Unprecedented improvements in global health, particularly increased life expectancy and lower child mortality, can largely be attributed to improvements in living conditions as well as technological innovation. However, it is also important to recognise and acknowledge that global health improvement is also due to diffusion knowledge as well as concerted actions focused on prevention.  The successful efforts to address a number of critical global health issues clearly demonstrates the capacity of societies to harness and adapt the scientific, technical and political resources necessary to respond effectively to the most important problems of the day.  Unfortunately, despite contributing to massive health gains, people working in public health continue to have to fight tooth and nail to ensure that investment in prevention is not lost to cover the ever increasing cost of personal health (sick) care.

Based on the public health experience, it is highly probable that the ancestral health movement will face a challenging uphill battle in its efforts to gain and maintain legitimacy and influence within the mainstream health arena. A key way of bolstering the profile and influence of ancestral health will be to integrate its principles more systematically across all parts of society through strengthening the evidence base and widening individual knowledge. However, whether a grass roots approach will be sufficient to achieve widespread health gains is the multi-billion dollar question.

Whilst ancestral health and public health are two highly compatible, if not entirely complementary paradigms there is a risk that, if the two movements end up operating separately from one another, the result will be a failure to achieve widespread health gains and a likely further exacerbation of health inequity. From my perspective as both a public health and ancestral health person, the prospect of collaboration and integration between the two paradigms holds real promise. In joining with public health, ancestral health would gain access to a well-established infrastructure (including a competent, dedicated and enthusiastic workforce) that has been purposefully established to address the very challenges that ancestral health holds so much promise in solving.

Whilst it’s far too early to know whether the ancestral health movement will remain a small niche lifestyle movement for the benefit of the highly educated and relatively affluent few or whether it will develop into a widespread social movement for the benefit of all, I’m excited about playing a part in this story and look forward watching as the ancestral health story plays out over the coming years.