With everyone talking about health data and being able to impact population health thanks to AI and machine learning algorithms, it ONLY makes sense to talk to a good, ole’ fashioned Public Health Epidemiologist like Maureen Perrin about the science and the philosophy at work behind all that data. Smoking, sex, vaccinations, plastic straw bans — this interview has it all! (Well, mostly in the context of changing behavior at-scale to improve the overall health of very large populations of people.) As everyone from digital health startups to health systems look at data as a way to study then impact behavior change, Maureen reminds us that “data doesn’t always make a difference in terms of how we make decisions” as individuals. What else can you learn from someone who’s made it her life’s work to study how to influence behavior change to reduce everyone’s health risks? Watch and learn…
Filmed in the HISA Studio at HIC 2019 in Melbourne, Australia, August 2019.
Jessica DaMassa is the host of the WTF Health show & stars in Health in 2 Point 00 with Matthew Holt. Get a glimpse of the future of healthcare by meeting the people who are going to change it. Find more WTF Health interviews here or check out www.wtf.health.
In 2003, 168 countries signed the world’s first public health treaty: the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The FCTC legally bound countries to enforce major tobacco control measures, ranging from tobacco taxes to regulations on public smoking. Through a massive international effort, the FCTC has assisted countries to improve their tobacco prevention programs, and the treaty continues to be a basis for many new programs that are implementing evidence-based tobacco control strategies.
In an article in PLoS Medicine, we publish new data showing that the food and beverage industry’s activities in low- and middle-income countries parallel that of the tobacco industry in years past; moreover, as cardiovascular disease and diabetes rates rise in poor nations, junk food, soda, and alcohol are statistically the major factors giving rise to deaths among working-age populations, and the newest evidence suggests that educational programs alone aren’t effective when markets are drowned by imports of cheap, unhealthy food and readily-accessible booze. So should the public health community push for a nutritional treaty or governance structure that parallels the successful introduction of the FCTC, but addresses “unhealthy commodities” like junk food? If so, what would such a structure look like?
Zooming out from the debates about soda taxes and similar public health controversies that pit individual freedom against public health desires to reduce disease rates, there are really a few core public health problems now facing global food systems: (1) that undernutrition and famine persist as over-nutrition (malnutrition in the direction of obesity) has appeared in the same poor households in many countries; and (2) that climate change has forced us to think about how to produce food for the world’s 9+ billion people in a manner that is environmentally sound (as highlighted in our recent discussion of Oxfam’s GROW campaign).
Epidemiology has lots of critics. In this article, for example, it is called “lying on a grand scale.” Every critique I have read has ignored history. Epidemiologists have been right about two major issues: 1. Heavy smoking causes lung cancer. 2. Folate deficiency causes birth defects. In both cases, the first evidence was epidemiological. Another example is John Snow’s conclusion about the value of clean water. In my experience, epidemiologists often overstate the strength of their evidence (as do most of us) but overstatement is quite different from having nothing worth saying.
Let’s look at an example. Many people think osteoporosis is due to lack of calcium. Bones are made of calcium, right? The epidemiology of hip fractures is clear. In spite of the conventional idea, the rate of hip fracture has been highest in places where people eat a lot of calcium, such as Sweden, and lowest in places where they eat little, such as Hong Kong. (For example.) In other words, the epidemiology flatly contradicted the conventional idea. This was apparently ignored by nutrition experts (everyone knows correlation does not equal causation) who advised millions of people, especially women, to take calcium supplements to avoid osteoporosis. Millions of people followed (and follow) that advice.