Inspiring A Healthier Future

04/10/2016 09:58

At a time when the health service is headed for breaking point, public health has returned to the forefront of the debate - after all, the more health problems we can prevent, the fewer serious conditions we will need to treat in the future. But as funding in this area continues to fall, it appears we're not only risking our future, but also ignoring the lessons of our past.

Public health services work to make us healthier as a nation. Think smoking cessation, sexual health, health visiting, school nursing - by helping people to make positive, healthy choices we help them avoid both mental and physical health problems later in their lives. In doing so, public health benefits everyone - whilst reducing pressures on our overloaded health system.

This emphasis on the importance of health and wellbeing in society was advocated in the NHS Five Year Forward Plan in 2014. However, as a new exhibition at the RCN aims to depict, it's far from a new idea.


Public health nursing has its origins in the mid 1800's when the inequalities of the 19th century, and the ruinous health outcomes of the poorest in society, became increasingly apparent. Following the Boer War, in which the Government struggled to find enough young people who were fit enough to recruit as soldiers, infant welfare in particular fast became a priority.

Florence Nightingale, an early pioneer in epidemiology, was a great proponent of public health nursing. As awareness of the impact of poverty on health grew during the nineteenth century, the public health nurse became the critical link between wider public health strategy and those it served - putting the policy into practice within the community. Nursing staff were key to driving the public health agenda forward and helping to make it accessible to individuals.


There has been a shift in who has the responsibility to make changes. Public health has historically been associated with the management of sanitation and infectious diseases - implying that public health is the responsibility of others and the 'state' rather than us as individuals.

Now there is a growing awareness of the need for everyone in society to take responsibility. By understanding the influences and wider determinants on health such as housing, education, class, wealth and employment, public health nurses can and do support individuals, communities and the population to manage their own health effectively and achieve the best outcomes for themselves and their families.

Everyone from health care professionals to the general public need to understand how and where public health movements and innovations have come from, so we can all work towards a healthier future. We need to use what we have learned in the past to determine what does and doesn't work - not just overall but understanding the needs locally and for the many different people we care for.

As the RCN comes towards the end of its centenary year, one of the main things we've realised from our celebrations is the true value of history to educate modern health care. Our public health exhibition therefore aims not just to teach people about the past but to inspire them towards to a healthier future.

A healthful form of work: The history of public health nursing
will be open to the public at the RCN Library & Heritage Center, 20 Cavendish Square until March 2017. For more information, please visit the RCN website.