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Universities combine to tackle health issues

A unique new institute is to be launched by two leading Scottish universities, combining their expertise to address the many elusive social factors underpinning one of the nation’s most pressing areas of concern – public health.

The Universities of St Andrews and Dundee are combining their complementary strengths across a wide range of disciplines in the bold venture to create the Social Dimensions of Health Institute (SDHI) whose aims include influencing public health policy and the improvement of the nation’s health.

The venture is the latest – and the most ambitious so far – to come out of the Promoting Partnership Initiative agreed between the two universities launched with a grant from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council in 2000.

Today, the partners announce that the search is on for a world class director with the vision, energy and research reputation to pilot the SDHI on a course which will make the most of the expertise and synergies it brings together. In addition to conducting novel research, the SDHI will provide a range of postgraduate courses, act as a major new focus for interdisciplinary work and work with practitioners and policy makers to solve strategically important problems.

Through, the SDHI over 50 researchers across the social sciences, medical research and practice will work together to tackle issues of widespread public and political concern.

Among the many research figures involved are the following members of the interim management board:

Professor Paul Boyle – professor of human geography at St Andrews and Director of the Scottish Longitudinal Study; Professor Sheila Hunt – Dean of the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Dundee; Professor Peter Davey – professor of pharmacoeconomics and Head of the Health Informatics Centre at Dundee; Dr Alexandra Greene – medical anthropologist at St Andrews; Dr Brian Williams – behavioural science, epidemiology and public health at Dundee; Professor Frank Sullivan – head of Tayside Centre for General Practice at Dundee; Dr Suzanne Zeedyk – developmental psychologist at Dundee; Professor Huw Davies – professor of health care policy and management at St Andrews and Director Research Utilisation Research Unit; Dr Arlene Astell – cognitive neuropsychologist at St Andrews.

Chairman of the interim board and University of St Andrews Secretary and Registrar David Corner said, “By seizing a new niche in research and education, this institute exemplifies the potential of the partnership. The combination of the range of disciplines involved together with their critical mass make the SDHI a unique venture that is likely to be highly influential.”

Professor Peter Davey, professor of pharmacoeconomics and Director of the Health Informatics Centre said, “The formation of the SDHI comes at an especially appropriate time. Health is at the top of the Scottish Executive’s agenda and is increasingly viewed as involving many factors – social, economic and psychological as well as physical. Scotland is the sick country of Europe, yet we have some of the best medical research. The SDHI will also be well positioned to benefit from Tayside’s pioneering medical records system. This links information in a way which allows health researchers access to greater depth and scope of anonymised data than anywhere else in the UK. Findings from problems we tackle in Scotland also have a global significance.”

Professor Paul Boyle, professor of human geography and Director of the Scottish Longitudinal Study explained, “The vision driving the institute is to add the insight of the social sciences to those of medicine and practice, to generate robust solutions to very complicated health care issues. By bringing together different strands of first class research, we will be able to explore relationships between, for example, the environment, gender, social class, age, diet and health, the impact of poverty, the role of social capital and social exclusion in health, the costs and benefits of initiatives to improve public health. Internationally renowned life sciences groups of both universities provide additional opportunities to integrate social and biomedical explanations for inequalities in health.”

Meanwhile, Professor Sheila Hunt, Dean of the School of Nursing and Midwifery said, “There is a gulf between what we as a nation know and how we live. This institute aims to bridge that gap. It is particularly exciting to see such a venture recognise the value of the health practitioners’ perspective and involve nurses and midwives and other colleagues at the research and postgraduate level.”

The director of the institute will be based, along with a number of research fellows, at the University of Dundee’s city centre campus in Airlie Place but the SDHI will also have nodes of activity in St Andrews. The universities have already committed significant investment to the venture.

In addition to providing a focus for collaborative research, the SDHI will organise seminars and conferences to stimulate discussion and disseminate results. Postgraduate students and researchers from medicine, social work, geography, law, psychology, management, social anthropology, nursing/midwifery and biology will come together to help Scotland become a healthier nation.

ENDS

Notes for editors

1. Projects being pursued through the SDHI include a cross- cultural study analysing eating habits and customs of women with a view to aiding cancer prevention and one assessing how the care given to young people with diabetes might be improved (see details below).

(i) As part of an International Collaboration (funded by The World Cancer Research Fund) involving Scotland, Netherlands, Mexico and Guatemela, Professor Annie Anderson Centre for Public Health Nutrition Research, University of Dundee and Dr Alex Greene, Department of Social Anthropology, University of St Andrews are undertaking a project entitled “Lessons for the listeners – consumers views on WCRF/AICR guidelines on prevention of cancer in Northern Europe and Meso America”.

Professor Anderson: “The study is being undertaken in order to analyse the eating habits and socio-cultural customs of four separate groups of women allowing us to better understand the reasoning behind certain dietary behaviours and its applicability to educating the public about maintaining or changing food choices to aid cancer prevention.”

(ii) Quality of Care in Young People with Type 1 Diabetes: Behaviour and Cultural Influences: Applicant: Dr Alexandra Greene, University of St Andrews, Social Anthropology Co-applicants: Dr Charles Skinner, Dr Stephen Greene, University of Dundee, Tayside Institute of Child Health. The project is funded by Diabetes UK and investigates care-delivery for young people with Type 1 diabetes, together with the behavioural, cultural and social factors that influence the variability in outcome of diabetes management in Centres across Scotland.

Dr Alexandra Greene: “By observing diabetes Centres with differing average glycaemic control we aim to identify social, psychological, organisational and cultural interventions that can be used to improve the strategies employed for good quality care. We believe that better advice and support for young people with diabetes will be available from this study and that inequalities in health service provision and, more importantly clinical outcome, will be eradicated.”

2. Biographies available from the Press Offices, contacts below.

3. “Promoting Partnership: An Evolving Collaboration” is an ambitious venture fostering institutional change within higher education. The initiative aims to draw upon strengths and interests in both the University of Dundee and the University of St Andrews to:

… expand both teaching and research in important emerging areas;
… experiment with innovation;
… build significant relationships with the private sector;
… significantly contribute to the social and economic well-being of Scotland.

For further information, please contact Carol Pope, University of Dundee Press Office on telephone (01382) 345108 or Claire Grainger, University of St Andrews Press Office on telephone 01334 462530/07730 415 015.

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