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The HPPHN 2018 conference: reflections of a trainee health psychologist

The fourth annual Health Psychology in Public Health conference – ‘The Role of Behavioural Science in Public Health: Application and Impact’ – was held on 28th February 2018 and hosted by the Hertfordshire Development Centre in the town of Stevenage, Hertfordshire. The audience was an interdisciplinary mix of scholars, students and practitioners working in a range of applied areas. The event also attracted an unexpected guest – the ‘Beast from the East’, bringing snowfall to Stevenage and mild travel chaos (I was due to return to the East coast of Scotland the following morning. It took 4 days). The aim of the conference was to explore the mutual goals and challenges of Behavioural Science and Public Health and to share best practice with others in the Network working across these two spheres. It was my first time attending a HPPHN conference since joining the Network.

The event opened with a welcome address from the Chair of the HPPHN, Dr Angel Chater, who reaffirmed that the goals of health psychology and public health are aligned – to maintain health, prevent illness, treat disease and develop effective healthcare systems – and called on delegates to open up a dialogue in order to collectively achieve these mutual aims. A public health keynote from Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive of PHE, was first on the programme. In his keynote, Mr Selbie gave recognition to the pivotal role of behavioural science in closing the health inequalities gap, ensuring that healthy choices become the easy choices and that people (and subsequently, retailers) are nudged in the right direction to make (and provide) healthy choices. In line with my own work, he reflected that the evidence for tobacco harm was known decades ago – but being right isn’t enough. Behavioural science is needed to understand the complex psychosocial environments in which people live, the choices that people have available to them and that they subsequently make, and how we can best support and engage them towards a health-promoting future. Closing the health gap isn’t just about healthcare – it’s about behaviour. This one-hour call to realise the contribution of behavioural science for population health was as provocative as it was enjoyable.

Testimony to the multidisciplinary make-up of the network, a health psychology keynote followed, as did the Twitter rush with the hashtag #hpphn. Falko Sniehotta, Professor of Behavioural Medicine and Health Psychology at Newcastle University, presented on the need to develop and apply translational behavioural science to improve population health and reduce inequalities. In order to minimise service inequalities and maximise intervention success, Prof Sniehotta called for co-creation and cross-collaboration between public health and behavioural science professionals, encouraging a two-way dialogue between academia and practice for mutual benefit. Having straddled academia and public health settings myself, I found his argument compelling and honest with regard to the challenges that both face. Equally, his argument to recognise the pivotal role of frontline staff and service users in the co-creation of health improvement interventions with a view to understanding the complex pattern of human behaviour and to having maximal impact, is a foundation of my personal practice.

When it comes to collaboration for service improvement and reduced health inequalities, I would reinforce another layer of collaboration to Prof Sniehotta’s call to action – namely, the value of cross-collaboration between trainees of each discipline. Collaboration between public health and behavioural science trainees and early career researchers will help to embed the multidisciplinary approach on the first step of the career ladder, recognising the value of co-creation across discipline boundaries at the earliest opportunity.

Conference lunches are the opportune moment for catching up with familiar faces and networking with new ones – the HPPHN lunch didn’t fail in fun or flavour. The bustling room was alive with intellectually stimulating conversation, debate and introductions. In parallel, delegates were treated to an array of posters showcasing innovative applications of Health Psychology practice and research in Public Health. A staple of many conference programmes, I enjoy shuffling between poster presentations for the opportunity they provide to quickly learn about new science and new collaborations in an often fun and creative presentation. It’s where science met design at the HPPHN conference. Prize-winning posters showcased the broad impact of behavioural science to public health challenges, including the reduction of dog fouling in public areas (Hargreaves et al); increasing access to, or uptake of, physical health screening in people with severe mental illness (Lamontagne-Godwin et al); and developing behaviour change competence in staff delivering community-based healthy lifestyle services (Atkinson et al). I hope to present some of my own research and intervention work undertaken as part of my NES Stage II training at next year’s conference.

Lunching, networking and poster perusal done; afternoon workshop to follow. Dr Amanda Bunten and Dr Tim Chadborn from PHE co-presented on a new behaviour and insights strategy for public health and Prof Katherine Brown from Coventry University presented passionately on the application of behavioural science to public health priorities. Collectively, they spoke of a marriage between behavioural science and public health that has given birth to choice architecture experiments in public sector food environments (health improvement), adaptations to existing care pathways to increase engagement with a stop smoking in pregnancy service (health improvement), and trials to reduce inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics and risk of antimicrobial resistance (health protection), to highlight a few examples. In showcasing case studies of good practice, presenters acknowledged that identifying the behaviour to change isn’t easy. Indeed, behaviour change isn’t easy. The presenters called for a systems-based approach, involving a range of stakeholders and partners, in order to effectively map out a behavioural pathway for intervention that is rigorous, feasible and impactful.

The conference closed with an open discussion on the future of the HPPHN, including possibilities of extending the network and a democratic decision on a new name and branding that would reflect its broader reach, beyond health psychology. This is an interesting crossroads for the network and one that I’m excited to be a part of as I personally identify with the broader behavioural science remit that the network is expanding into.

Based on my experience, I would highly recommend the next BSPHN conference to Stage I and Stage II health psychology trainees and to postgraduate students in public health. Attendance encourages trainees to forge relationships early in their careers and bring together our two complementary training routes once a year for our collective endeavour of improving population health. At the same time, I ask the BSPHN to consider funded places at future conferences, thereby removing barriers to shared learning and collaboration among trainees at the early stages of their careers.

I’m grateful to the conference organisers for a stimulating and enjoyable day and I look forward to reconvening with faces old and new in 2019; and, dare I say, to better weather.

Written by Emma N. Wilson