Chair of NHS Assembly Chris Ham discusses the importance of population health highlighted by pandemic

One of the strengths of the NHS Assembly is the diversity of experiences its members bring to discussions. These experiences mean that meetings feel refreshingly different from other forums I attend both in the topics discussed and the variety of views expressed.

A key theme in the work of the Assembly has been the need to give greater priority to improving population health. COVID-19 has provided added impetus to this work by serving as a reminder of the underlying causes of ill health as revealed by stark inequalities in health outcomes. It has also highlighted the importance of the actions each of us take in preventing illness.

The NHS has a part to play in improving population health both through the services it delivers and by working in partnership with others. The Assembly sees partnership working with local authorities and voluntary and community sector organisations as the most promising way of making progress. This includes working directly with the people and communities most affected, understanding their needs and seeing them as active agents in bringing about change.

Assembly member Dr Andy Knox, a GP in Morecambe Bay, argues that primary care networks (PCNs) will be able to work together to give much greater emphasis to prevention by working with nurseries and schools to give children the best possible start in life. They should extend their reach beyond general practice to create integrated care communities in which health and care staff from many different backgrounds work together to tackle the wider determinants of health and wellbeing.

Andy’s work is echoed in the experiences of another Assembly member, Carolyn Wilkins, Chief Executive of Oldham Council and Accountable Officer of the NHS Oldham CCG. Carolyn and Andy share a belief in asset-based community development, as displayed in Oldham’s work on thriving communities and place-based integration. Oldham works closely with voluntary and community sector organisations, including providing financial support to these organisations to help communities flourish and provide a range of social prescribing activities.

Fatima Khan-Shah, an Assembly member who is Programme Lead for unpaid carers in the West Yorkshire and Harrogate Integrated Care System (ICS), has been a powerful advocate for service users and those who care for them being in the room when decisions are made. As Fatima argues, user and carer involvement must be welcomed and valued by public sector leaders if it is to be meaningful. The experiences of users and carers should be at the heart of partnership working as public services embark on economic and social recovery from the effects of COVID-19.

The common thread in the work of Andy, Carolyn and Fatima is a willingness to think and act differently. Public services need extra resources, but more of the same will not deliver sustainable improvements in health and care. Partnership working, community involvement, a greater focus on prevention and population health, and above all a willingness to use all available assets offer the best way forward.

Chris Ham is currently Co-Chair of the NHS Assembly, Emeritus Professor of health policy and management at the University of Birmingham, and Senior Visiting Fellow at The King’s Fund, where he was Chief Executive between 2010 and 2018. He served as chair of the Coventry and Warwickshire Integrated Care System from 2019 to 2021.

Chris was awarded a CBE for his services to the NHS in 2004 and a knighthood for services to health policy and management in 2018. He is a founding fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, and holds honorary fellowships with both the Royal College of Physicians of London and the Royal College of General Practitioners. He became a companion of the Institute of Healthcare Management in 2006.