Why the North is playing catch-up to the 'golden triangle' on health research

For mother-of-three Saeema Majid, who is looking after an autistic son while battling her own health problems, it has been a lifeline in tough times.

The 36-year-old is one of the mothers attending a programme at the Woodroyd Centre in Bradford designed to help reduce the number of overweight and obese children living in the most deprived areas of the city.

Her son's condition on the autism spectrum and the fact he doesn't like textures makes providing him with a healthy and balanced diet a difficult task.

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The Henry Programme, Woodroyd Centre, Bradford....25th February 2019 ..Picture by Simon Hulme

But speaking to The Yorkshire Post during the latest session of the eight-week healthy lifestyle course, Mrs Majid said she and her family were already reaping the benefits.

“I have learnt so much and I am definitely eating healthier and my children are as well,” the stay-at-home mother explained.

"Bradford needs this because if we get our children used to healthy eating at this age with lots of fruit and vegetables they won’t say no in the future because it will be a habit.”

The scheme, delivered by leading UK early intervention charity HENRY and the National Lottery funded programme Better Start Bradford, has a focus on promoting positive early childhood development and giving youngsters the best start in life.

Professor Paul Stewart, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health, University of Leeds, pictured in one of the Dental School facilities. 27 February 2020. Picture Bruce Rollinson

It educates participants on how to develop healthy lifestyle habits including food, activity, and families’ daily routines. It is provided in small groups of up to 12 parents in local community and children’s centres, or on a one-to-one basis in the home.

Currently the healthy families group courses, which run throughout the year, can only be accessed by residents who live in the Better Start Bradford areas of Little Horton, Bradford Moor, Bowling and Barkerend, due to funding.

Nicola Charnock, HENRY service co-ordinator for Better Start Bradford, stressed the need to expand the current programmes due to the chronic health problems that exist within Bradford.

This includes high rates of obesity and diabetes in both adults and children, poor oral health, particularly tooth decay, in children and high rates of deprivation.

The Henry Programme, Woodroyd Centre, Bradford....25th February 2019 ..Picture by Simon Hulme

"This work is vital," the 32-year-old said. "We are working in the field of prevention... if we can prevent some of the issues later on in life such as diabetes and obesity, that is going to cost the NHS in the long run so much less.

"If you don’t invest in that prevention early on, you are just waiting for problems to happen."

She said more must be done to bring deprived areas in the North up to the level of good health enjoyed by people living in London and the South East.

"There is a lot of deprivation in Bradford, it is harder for families to find ways to live a healthy lifestyle when they can’t afford to go to activity groups and when they can’t budget in terms of healthy eating," she said.

At a time when a desire to 'level up' the UK by boosting the northern economy is repeated like a mantra across government, the need to improve the long-term health of the region with schemes like those in Bradford is not always given top priority.

But according to the Northern Health Science Alliance, which represents research intensive universities, NHS teaching trusts and northern Academic Health Science Networks, policy-makers neglect it at their peril.

As its 2018 Health for Wealth report points out, 30 per cent of the £4 per person per hour gap in productivity between the Northern Powerhouse and the rest of England is due to ill-health, meaning that reducing this gap could generate an extra £13.2bn a year for the economy.

There are a number of striking examples of how the North's comparative ill-health holds the region back.

On average if someone in the North experiences a spell of ill-health, they are 39 per cent more likely to lose their job than someone in the rest of England. And if they do get back to work, their wages will be 66 per cent lower.

Though health rates vary across the region - generally in line with average earnings - there is a gap in life expectancy of two years between the North and the rest of the country, while premature death rates are 20 per cent higher.

In a letter to the Prime Minister seen by The Yorkshire Post, hospital chief executives and university medical school heads argue that this disparity is being driven in part by a lack of health research funding for the region.

As in other areas of the economy, the so-called 'golden triangle' of London, Oxford and Cambridge dominates, raking in some 60 per cent of the billions of pounds handed out in public and private research funding each year. In total just £21 is spent per person on health innovation and research in the North each year compared to a £62 average in the 'golden triangle'.

While London on its own takes in 31.8 per cent of the funding, Leeds gets just 1.9 per cent, Sheffield 1.4 per cent and Manchester 3.5 per cent.

Health research funding may be less obviously beneficial to a local area than new trains or buses, but the NHSA argues that it benefits patients by giving them access to cutting-edge health innovation. And there is a well-documented 'virtuous circle' where the jobs and expertise brought to an area make it more economically prosperous, in turn leading to a healthier population.

Oxford, Cambridge and London are the country's best-known centres for health research, with the capacity and infrastructure to support a high proportion of the UK’s efforts in this area.

Northern centres are hoping to muscle in on their turf and take advantage of their expertise in health technology and applied health research, taking innovative health ideas and working out how best to deliver them to patients.

But they fear the current funding model from government and other funding bodies is more weighted to pharmaceutical research, where money is spent developing drugs to treat existing diseases.

Around half this funding comes from national bodies such as the Medical Research Council, UK Research and Innovation and the National Institute for Health Research, while the other half comes from industry.

Professor Paul Stewart, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Medicine & Health at the University of Leeds, who co-signed the letter to the PM, said the case for a change of direction should be made on the basis of quality, not the North feeling it hasn't had a fair crack of the whip.

He said: "Where we are with some of our health technology applications, particularly in Leeds, is we're turning that dial to disease prevention to early diagnosis, with a more dramatic and immediate impact on human health.

"That's the exciting bit where I think we've got a real head of steam. And like all governments, they want to see an evidence base for that."

Leeds is already responsible for some eye-catching innovations which have benefitted the local NHS and patients.

The Leeds Care Record, one of the most digitally advanced electronic health records across the UK, provides medics from GPs to staff at hospitals, nursing homes and even hospices the most up-to-date information about a patient.

Prof Stewart said the strength the Leeds City Region already has in the field of medical technology could bring in thousands of extra jobs and more than £1bn to the economy in the next decade.

And the university's state-of-the-art Nexus building, which boasts a number of firms specialising in the application of artificial intelligence to health, is already 70 per cent full just a few months after opening.

"We've got to be shouting about this," says Professor Stewart. "As Yorkshiremen we don't crow about stuff, but this is a real asset that we've got to bring to the fore in terms of our potential here."