Medical man looks back at career improving Sheffield’s health

Dr Jeremy Wight.
Dr Jeremy Wight.
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Longer life expectancy, fewer teenage pregnancies, a fall in childhood obesity and closing the health gap between the haves and the have nots...

Dr Jeremy Wight – who has headed up public health in Sheffield since 2006 – says he has been ‘proud’ to oversee a raft of key health improvements in the city.

Embargoed to 2200 Wednesday June 12.''File photo dated 04/11/10 of an overweight man as doctors in England and Wales have seen a four-fold increase in the number of children and teenagers admitted to hospital for conditions linked to obesity. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Wednesday June 12, 2013. The explosive rise in admissions from 872 to 3,806 occurred in the space of a decade between 2000 and 2009. Over the whole 10-year period, a total of 20,885 young people were treated in hospital for obesity-related conditions. Nearly three-quarters of cases involved problems complicated by being overweight, such as asthma, breathing difficulties during sleep, and pregnancy complications. Teenage girls accounted for the biggest rise in obesity-related hospital admissions. In 2009, obesity is believed to have contributed to complications in 198 pregnant girls. The number of bariatric surgery procedures conducted to help children and young people lose weight also saw a sharp rise, from one per year in 2000 to 31

Embargoed to 2200 Wednesday June 12.''File photo dated 04/11/10 of an overweight man as doctors in England and Wales have seen a four-fold increase in the number of children and teenagers admitted to hospital for conditions linked to obesity. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Wednesday June 12, 2013. The explosive rise in admissions from 872 to 3,806 occurred in the space of a decade between 2000 and 2009. Over the whole 10-year period, a total of 20,885 young people were treated in hospital for obesity-related conditions. Nearly three-quarters of cases involved problems complicated by being overweight, such as asthma, breathing difficulties during sleep, and pregnancy complications. Teenage girls accounted for the biggest rise in obesity-related hospital admissions. In 2009, obesity is believed to have contributed to complications in 198 pregnant girls. The number of bariatric surgery procedures conducted to help children and young people lose weight also saw a sharp rise, from one per year in 2000 to 31

But he says more needs to be done by his successor to tackle the health issues facing Sheffield, particularly around alcohol abuse.

The Star spoke to Dr Wight about his long and successful career as director of public health for Sheffield Council after he announced his decision to leave in April.

Dr Wight said one of his proudest achievements in his time in the role has been work addressing health inequality in the city.

He said: “People’s health was getting better in the areas that we were working. We were definitely making an impact, so I’m very proud of that.

“We applied for and got new funding from the Government called ‘A healthy town’, which was to address childhood obesity in Sheffield.

“That ran for two and a half years. What we saw was that the rates of childhood obesity which had been increasing levelled off and began to decrease.

“That was at a time when other places weren’t able to turn the tide. We started to bring it down in Sheffield, so I was very pleased with that.”

Sheffield won ‘Beacon Status’ in 2014 for the city’s work in addressing health inequality, a win masterminded by Dr Wight.

“We were very proud of that award. It reflected all the work that has gone on to address inequality and the fact we were closing the health inequality gap.”

It is not just health inequality, but work on smoking and teenage pregnancy which Dr Wight found success in.

“We did a lot of work to address smoking. We set up very effective stop smoking services. We did some great work on teenage pregnancy and teen pregnancy rates, which have about halved in 10 years, which is a significant achievement.”

But how has the picture of Sheffield’s health changed since Dr Wight first took on the role?

“These past three to four years have been dominated by arguing about health and social care and the transfer of public health into local government, which has been a difficult time.

“It is definitely better for public health now it is under local government control, but the transition hasn’t been easy.

“There are cultural differences to come to terms with. But I think the transition has been effective.

“On the plus side, people are living longer. Life expectancy has increased by about three years since I started the job. And that’s across the board, not just people who live in the more privileged parts of the city but people living in the more disadvantaged parts as well. There has been some reduction in smoking prevalence and reduction in teenage pregnancy.

“So there are a number of things in terms of public health in the city that have definitely improved in the last eight years. I’m really pleased about that.

“But there are things that have become more of an issue. The fact that the population as a whole is getting older has put pressure on the health and social care system. There are real problems in the hospital system and we have to find a better way to manage health and social care to keep people out of hospitals.

“Another thing is the problems associated with alcohol. It’s the one issue which is getting worse rather than better.

“Liver disease is the one cause of death which is increasing – not just in Sheffield but across the country.

“There are a lot of health issues around alcohol – just look at A&E on a Friday or Saturday night. It is related to violence and domestic abuse. Pregnant mothers who are drinking during pregnancy are more likely to have a child affected by alcohol, such as born with learning difficulties. Alcohol is one area where I don’t think we’ve done as well as we should have done.

“I think there are opportunities for the council to step up to the plate on that and make a real difference.”

Dr Wight recently presented his annual report to Sheffield councillors.

Some suggested he was given a bit of a rough ride for choosing to focus on climate change in his report. He said: “Last year, for 2014, I made the theme of my report climate change and health.

“I think that if you look at what the big health issues are going to be for the rest of this century, I think climate change is number one.

“If the predictions about climate change come true, it affects every aspect of our ability to lead healthy lives, including food production and water supply.

“People have made some very, very grim forecasts. The reason I chose to focus on it is because there are things that we can do now that will help to mitigate the impact of global warming.

“For example, fitting better insulation in your home. If people used more physically active transport, that is good for people’s health and reduces emissions.

The response to his report was not the reason he chose to leave.

He said: “I think the response was that there are a lot more pressing problems now like the impact of welfare reforms. But it’s absolutely not true that that has contributed to my decision to leave.

“I feel that the impact of welfare reforms is terrible.

“It’s absolutely disgraceful what the Government is doing, in my view.

“Which is why we are putting more money into the Citizens Advice Service.”

So what next for Dr Wight?

“I’m going to have a break and recharge the batteries before looking at how I can put my experience in public health to good use again,” he said.