The stress on local health

Maureen O'Connor looks at academia forging links with the NHS on Teesside
The new universities, which have often evolved from local colleges, pride themselves on their links with local industry and commerce. Teesside University, based in Middlesbrough, has taken the unusual step of forging links with the National Health Service in a campaign to improve the poor health of the local community.

Dr Peter Kelly, director of the university's newly launched Centre for Health and Medical Research, says the centre will be particularly concerned with the main problems of a long-established industrial area: high levels of lung cancer, for instance, among women resulting from the very high levels of smoking discovered among the 16-to-45-year-old female population.

"We will be carrying out vital research, firstly to gain an accurate picture of the physical and mental health needs of the various communities on Teesside and then to work with the health professionals in the field of health education and promotion. I want this centre to become the first port of call for anyone carrying out research in this area," Dr Kelly says.

The university has already made a significant commitment to health education, Dr Kelly says, and the new research centre is a logical extension. It builds on undergraduate and postgraduate courses for all the health professions except medicine and will boost the university's teaching strength a well as providing a big asset for the community, Dr Kelly believes.

The centre will focus its work on the key areas identified by the government White Paper, Health of the Nation - coronary heart disease, cancers, sexual health, mental health, accidental injury and primary health care. "But we feel research of this kind needs to be focused where it is actually going to be used. Populations have different needs and nothing would happen in this field in Teesside, with its poor health record, if it wasn't for this centre. A lot of health research is locked up in the medical schools. We want this centre to be the first port of call for anyone carrying out research into health in this community."

The local NHS trust, Tees Health, has committed pounds 560,000 to the centre and is involved in the planning and execution of key projects. The first priority will be to gain an accurate picture of the health needs of the various communities in the area. A survey to measure the perceived quality of health of 15,000 people on Teesside, the largest such survey in the UK, will give the centre and Tees Health an information base from which to work. Another survey will assess the mental health needs of the Tees Health area.

Dr Kelly comes from a background in mathematics and statistics, and has moved to Middlesbrough from the medical faculty at the University of Newcastle. "There is a lot of work to be done in this community," he says. "As well as the serious problems with smoking, we will be looking at stress, unemployment, drug abuse and diet." A project has already been launched to look at the relationship between GP health provision and the needs of specific local communities.

The centre has also obtained funding for four research studentships. One of these will examine young people's perceptions of the risk involved in smoking and sexual activity. It will start from a psychological study of the assumptions adolescents make about the risk involved before they launch themselves into smoking or sexual activity. Only if you understand how young people see the risks involved, the academics think, will it be possible to design appropriate health promotion packages aimed at persuading them either to stop their risky behaviour or not to start in the first place.

Another project will investigate the effect of the shocks generated by walking in normal people and in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. It is suspected that arthritis patients may become less mobile over time because their joints are damaged by the shock waves generated when a heel hits the ground.

"This centre is something which has been welcomed right across the health service and the university," Dr Kelly says. "Since our launch a few weeks ago it has been decided to set up a biomedical research group in co-operation with the engineering department here. But the whole point is that we are doing all this in co-operation with the community."

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