Volunteers on 'healthy lifestyles' mission in Yorkshire

A LOTTERY-FUNDED programme in Yorkshire has been hailed as a trail-blazer for other projects tackling health inequalities across the country.

Altogether Better has 16 projects in the region that recruit and train thousands of volunteer health champions who seek to influence family, friends and contacts in their communities to lead healthier lifestyles.

Its ultimate aim is to mobilise health champions across England to play a key role tackling health problems facing the country including inequalities which have continue to grow despite vastly increased NHS spending.

The approach, which fits closely with the Government's Big Society agenda, has been highlighted in the coalition's public health White Paper which says it has grown to become a movement.

It says the initiative has enhanced pathways to education, paid employment and enterprise through voluntary action and wider civic participation.

Projects focused on hard-to-reach groups include work with elderly people in Bradford, healthy-eating schemes in Leeds, a scheme with isolated communities in caravan parks on the East Coast, prisoners and Muslim taxi drivers.

The community health champions network in Sheffield has recruited 130 champions who have put in more than 10,000 hours voluntarily and supported more than 5,000 people to make lifestyle changes. More than 40 champions have gone on to obtain paid employment.

The five-year programme was launched in 2008 with 6.8m in funding from the Big Lottery and involves a collaboration of voluntary and public sector individuals and organisations that recruit and train volunteer community health champions.

Programme director Alyson McGregor said the evidence demonstrated benefits which went way beyond improvements in health and mental wellbeing.

"The approach has a far wider impact and the programme fits in very neatly with the coalition government's Big Society agenda," she said.

"We hope that our national profile will help to inspire our local council leaders and national government policy makers to unlock the full potential of our entrepreneurial communities.

"Our 12,000 community health champions have already reached 60,000 people in Yorkshire and we are making progress in giving a voice to champions from all over the UK."

Bradford GP Shahid Ali, primary care clinical lead for the regional health authority, said that the programme could potentially make huge savings on the current 70bn annual bill for looking after people with long-term medical conditions.

Mark Gamsu, programme director for health inequalities and local improvement at the Department of Health, said that the gap in health inequalities had been steadily widening between the country's rich and poor. "We must reverse the trend," he said. "Community health champions are part of the solution and they should not be on the margins of health delivery services."

Champions to inspire city

In Sheffield, champions are aiming to do at least 100 hours of volunteering over six months. They are working with 11 "host" organisations across the city, backed by three city-wide organisations, MIND, HomeStart and Sheffield Wildlife Trust.

Focussing on healthy eating, physical activity and mental wellbeing, the scheme aims to be working with more than 4,000 people by September next year.