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  • Prevention in the age of information: Public education for better health (June 2020)

    Claire Cox
    Article information
    • UK
    • Reports and articles
    • Pre-existing
    • Original author
    • No
    • Dean Hochlaf and Harry Quilter-Pinner
    • 29/06/20
    • Everyone


    "Over half of the disease burden in England is deemed preventable", says this report, "with one in five deaths attributed to causes that could have been avoided". It notes however, that progress has stalled on reducing the number of people with preventable illness and that compared to other high-income countries, we are underperforming.

    The authors call for a paradigm shift in prevention policy, from interventions that "blame and punish" to those that "empathise and assist". Regressive taxes and bans have not, they say, delivered the transformation required.

    Key to any new prevention strategy is the online information environment. Over 60% of British adults use the internet to check symptoms or self-diagnose, with the NHS website considered to be the most trustworthy. There is also, however, a "pernicious prevalence of false information". Polling shows that less than half of the population believe obesity is linked to cancer (misinformation), while over a third either agree that vaccinations can cause autism, or say they don't know (disinformation).


    The report states that the COVID-19 crisis shows how rapidly disinformation spreads. A poll revealed that nearly half (48%) of all British people had either seen or been sent "fake news" about COVID-19, online since the outbreak began. In addition, almost two in five (17%) said they did not know whether they had come across fake news, suggesting that the ability to identify and report the spread of misinformation is less than perfect.

    In this context, health education, on its own, is insufficient. We need to build health literacy (people's ability to understand health information), and work towards the goal of patient activation (enabling people to exert control over the determinants of health).

    The report makes a series of recommendations, including the introduction of a permanent "disinformation unit" to correct false information and help shape public health narratives.

    The authors conclude that "New technologies have created opportunities to reach wider audiences, but ... It is also clear that the NHS and health sector more broadly need to take a more proactive approach. As an extremely trusted source of health information, it is imperative the NHS stays ahead of the curve".


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