In a workshop held at INTECOL 2013 on Monday 19th August by the Natural Capital Initiative, healthcare professionals and ecologists came together to discuss the links between ecosystems and human health. Such work is receiving increasing attention as the potential benefits for health, such as mental wellbeing, that can be gained from nature and green spaces become better understood. The workshop therefore aimed to facilitate discussions between these often distinct disciplines and review current and future directions for such work.
The workshop was chaired by Bill Sutherland, with guest speakers who offered their own perspectives: Professor Richard Mitchell from the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow, Jonathan Grigg who is professor of paediatric respiratory and environmental medicine at Barts and the London School of Medicine, Dr Ian Mudway from King’s Environmental Research Group and Ruth Garside from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health.
A wide variety of topics and ideas were discussed, with several main issues emerging. A key problem highlighted was that there is a huge disconnect between those working in health care and ecology on what are often similar research topics. There needs to be more communication and collaboration between these mainly separate disciplines in order to progress research and generate more effective evidence bases. A particular barrier highlighted to such collaborations however is the different data and evidence requirements of these different disciplines. Whilst those in health care rely a lot on clinical trials and systematic reviews, ecologists use field based techniques and empirical studies. As such, this can cause difficulties in developing a ‘common language’ between these different researchers, in addition to problems when linking these different evidence bases into one coherent message for policy makers and the public.
Another key theme of the workshop related to the policies currently being developed, such as the recent Scottish government document ‘Good Places, Better Health’. Speakers highlighted how the common perception that policy makers are one single body was wrong; in fact policy makers work in different areas in different fields and therefore often require different evidence. However, it was noted that whilst the recent progression of these policies is good, the evidence they require is often lacking or under developed, which can hinder effective practices being put in place. This is particularly true when trying to identify the causal links between particular ecosystem variables and their impacts on human health and wellbeing.
The challenge for when or if academics should become advocates for the environmental impacts upon human health was also discussed. This is particularly true for those working in health care and interacting with patients who have conditions, such as asthma, which have direct links to environmental quality. At what stage should academics offer specific advice relating to the effects the surrounding environment can have on people’s health issues, and how can this be done when strong evidence is often lacking? This emerged as a particular challenge for the near future.
The ideas and issues that were discussed in the workshop were encouraging signs that those working within this area are keen for the research to progress in a way that has direct links to policy and the benefit of patients. It is clear that in order for this to happen the first key challenge to overcome is to increase the communication and collaboration between these different disciplines.