Passionate about challenging social and health inequalities
Colleague spotlight | Anne-Marie Bagnall
I am Professor of Health and Wellbeing Evidence, and Director of the Centre for Health Promotion Research (CHPR) at Leeds Beckett University. With expertise in evidence synthesis methodology, community engagement and community wellbeing, recent research includes: a scoping review and qualitative research into community engagement to reduce health inequalities; a systematic review on whole systems approaches to public health challenges; and systematic reviews on joint decision-making and community infrastructure to boost social relations and community wellbeing.
Tell us a bit about you and what led you to working with the School of Health
I grew up in Stockport, did my BSc in life sciences in Liverpool, then a lab-based PhD in osteoporosis biomechanics in London. At that point I realised I wanted to emerge from the lab and work with people! My first job was research co-ordinator on a Helicobacter pylori screening Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT), at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine. As I was writing grant applications, I started to wonder if there was a better way to bring research evidence together. This (and a strong desire to move back up north!) led to my next job as Research Fellow at the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination at the University of York, where I spent seven happy years learning, delivering and training others in systematic review methods. However, systematic reviews are desk-based research and eventually my desire to work with people led to a move to Leeds Beckett (then Leeds Metropolitan) in 2005, as a senior research fellow in the Centre for Men’s Health. When my three-year fixed-term contract ended, I moved to a permanent role in the Centre for Health Promotion Research. In 2014, I was promoted to Reader; in 2017 to Professor; and in 2019 I took over as Centre Director.
What makes you passionate about your work around health promotion and why is it important?
I am passionate about both research methods and people, and about challenging social and health inequalities. Health promotion research is the perfect place for me, as it allows me to apply my skills to developing innovative research methods to strengthen the evidence base on community-level interventions to tackle health inequalities. In health promotion, we champion a social model of health and wellbeing, with the focus on ‘upstream’ social determinants such as employment, education, income and the places that we live, work and age, rather than ‘downstream’ determinants such as individual behaviour change. These upstream factors for preventing ill health are more challenging to address and research, but doing so is more cost-effective than focusing on downstream factors – which may even increase health inequalities. My research centres on community-level approaches to health and wellbeing, which can have a myriad of positive effects on people, their communities and the relationships between them. I’m particularly interested in ways to support and boost these social relationships, as a means of preventing loneliness and the poor health and wellbeing associated with that, and this includes looking at how people interact with each other in community and public spaces, and natural settings.
How is collaboration integral to your work, and what are one or two collaborations that have been most meaningful to you?
Collaboration is crucial to all aspects of my work. In the CHPR we work as a team with each member bringing a slightly different set of skills and experience to each project. We also recognise that we are a small team and health promotion is a broad discipline that overlaps with many different disciplines, so we collaborate frequently with academic and non-academic partners who are experts in different disciplines or methodologies. For example, we’ve worked with information specialists and health economists from the universities of Leeds, York and Exeter on cost-effectiveness reviews to complement our own systematic reviews of effectiveness. One of my most significant recent collaborations was with the University of Liverpool (public mental health) and Locality (a non-academic third sector organisation) in the Communities of Place evidence programme for the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. We’re also committed to working with community organisations and people themselves, recognising them as experts by experience who can help us to strengthen the evidence base in this area, and we often use participatory research methods to do this. CHPR colleagues Prof Jane South and Susan Coan set up CommUNIty, our community campus partnership, one of the first in the country.
What achievements in this area have you been most proud of while working in the School of Health?
I’m most proud of the contribution that my research has made to public health policy and debates in the UK and internationally. For example, our systematic mapping review and case studies contributed to the 2016 update of the NICE guidance on community engagement for reducing health inequalities. Our systematic review of reviews on community-centred approaches to health underpinned the Public Health England Guide to Community-Centred Approaches to Health and Wellbeing. Our systematic review on community places and spaces to boost social relations is one of the most downloaded items from the What Works Centre for Wellbeing website. I’ve been invited to contribute to cross-European panels on healthy city design and, most recently, to a round table on joint decision-making for Healthy North Belfast. But I’m at my happiest when I’m in a room with community members (a.k.a. people!) and they’re telling me about what they have done and are planning to do to improve things in their community, and their own health and wellbeing.
When they tell me that our research can help them with that work, nothing could make me prouder.
Anne-Marie Bagnall is Professor of Health & Wellbeing Evidence and Director of the Centre for Health Promotion Research at Leeds Beckett University. Her research aims to improve people's health and wellbeing and reduce health inequalities.