West Suffolk Hospital doctor’s leading role in preventing illness

Helena Jopling, public health consultant at West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust
Picture: West Suffolk

Helena Jopling, public health consultant at West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust Picture: West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust - Credit: Archant

Most of us think of a doctor as someone whose job it is to make us better when we’re ill, but these days there’s a new kind of hospital medic.

They’re very rare at present but Helena Jopling - who believes she is currently the only one employed by an acute hospital in the east of England - says their number is sure to grow.

Her official title is consultant in healthcare public health, but she’s got a better way of summing up what she does.

“I explain it to my 10-year-old by saying I’m a doctor who stops people from getting sick in the first place,” she says.

Her employer, West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds, is one of around only 20 hospital trusts in England to employ a consultant like her, whose job it is to help prevent illness by working with staff and patients to promote healthy lifestyle choices.

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Helena’s appointment is part of a hospital policy aimed a showing “a clear and substantial commitment to make the prevention of ill health a core part of everything we do” that applies to mental, as well as physical wellbeing.

It also comes as evidence grows about links between lifestyle and illnesses such as heart disease, many cancers, lung disease and type 2 diabetes, which are placing an increasing strain on our hard-pressed NHS as numbers of people affected spirals.

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“This kind of role and illness prevention is becoming more of a priority for the NHS, policy-wise,” says Helena. “When we look at the patterns of disease over the last few decades there is a rise in chronic illnesses related to lifestyle that is too stark to ignore.”

According to NHS Digital there were 617,000 hospital admissions in England in 2016/17 where obesity was a factor, an increase of 18% on 2015/16. In 2016, 26% of adults were classified as obese, compared to 15% in 1993. In addition, only 26% of adults and just 16% of children consumed five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day in 2016 and one in five children in Year 6 and one in 10 children in reception were classified as obese. A total of 21% of men and 25% of women were classed as inactive.

The NHS Digital statistics also showed that in Norfolk during 2016/17, obesity was the main reason for admission to hospital, or a relevant factor in that episode of care, for 8,911 people. In Suffolk it was 10,009 people and in Essex 9,611 over the same time period.

“There is a growing recognition about the importance of healthy lifestyle choices and that the NHS needs to be a stronger advocate because we are in a position where we can encourage people to make changes that will help,” says Helena.

The messages are ones we are all familiar with: don’t smoke, drink within recommended limits, don’t eat processed, high fat and sugar foods and do at least 30 minutes’ physical activity a day. Yet many of us continue to ignore them.

Helena is realistic about why that is. Busy work and home schedules can intervene, people are influenced by advertising, convenience, price, habit and a host of other factors.

Much of her time is spent working with hospital staff, encouraging them to make healthy choices themselves and give the right advice to patients. The hospital is also conscious it needs to reflect its values in foods sold on site and has introduced restrictions on the sale of sugary drinks and banned the promotion of sugary drinks as well as deals on products high in fat, sugar or salt.

“We’ve also stopped unhealthy food being available at tills and reduced the display of high calorie confectionery,” says Helena. “These restrictions won’t solve obesity issues on their own, but are an important step towards a wider understanding of the dangers of too much sugar in our diets.”

The hospital’s catering team has also won awards for its healthy menu choices.

“We need to be exemplars and role models as an organisation and a public space,” says Helena. “Research shows people do expect doctors and nurses to give them advice about lifestyle behaviour. Visits to clinics and other appointments are opportunities to make every contact count in this way and we can support other organisations to do this too.

“There is a skill in communicating that advice that doesn’t put people off and ensures they know where they can go to get support and advice when they are ready. It’s never too late for people to make a change either, even if they are already poorly, have a long-term health condition or are recovering from illness.

“This role is new but it is so important and it is the future. We can all help cherish our NHS by making sure we do everything we can to look after ourselves so it is there for people to use when they need it. Looking after yourself helps us to look after the whole community.”

Blueprint for healthy living

Experts at the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) say evidence about links between lifestyle and disease is growing.

Inactivity and too much fast and processed food is fuelling obesity and dramatic rises in cancer rates, according to its new report, Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective. Around one in six deaths annually is due to cancer and as more countries adopt ‘Western’ lifestyles, numbers are expected to grow. As a result, WCRF has announced 10 updated cancer prevention tips:

1. Be a healthy weight

2. Be physically active as part of everyday life

3. Eat a diet rich in wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and beans

4. Limit ‘fast foods’ and processed foods high in fat, starches or sugars

5. Limit red and processed meat

6. Limit sugar-sweetened drinks

7. Limit alcohol

8. Don’t use supplements in place of healthy diet

9. For mothers: breastfeed your baby, if you can

10. After a cancer diagnosis: follow these recommendations, if you can

Not smoking, avoiding other exposure to tobacco and excess sun are also important.


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