20 May 2020
Population Health: Understanding the state of our health
Have you ever wondered what causes us to obtain particular health outcomes? Consider the circumstances of your own physical and mental health at the moment. Other than the obvious things like the impact of our training and nutritional choices on our body composition, have you ever wondered what deeper causes and influential factors actually contributed…
Have you ever wondered what causes us to obtain particular health outcomes?
Consider the circumstances of your own physical and mental health at the moment.
Other than the obvious things like the impact of our training and nutritional choices on our body composition, have you ever wondered what deeper causes and influential factors actually contributed to the current state of your health?
Today, I invite you to learn about an impact you may not have considered before, called population health.
Population health is defined as the health outcomes of a group of individuals who belong to a specified population. For example, the average health outcomes of individuals from the Western Suburbs of Melbourne, which are different to the average health outcomes of individuals from Melbourne CBD.
This is particularly important to understand, especially if you are a coach or health professional working with clients in a 1-1 setting. If you have a thorough understanding of the factors which have influenced this person’s health from a population level, you can have a greater understanding of why this person’s health is that particular way and what the influencing factors are that have contributed largely to this person’s health outcomes.
When you have a sound understanding of population health, you can better understand how to go about helping this person with their health issues in ways you may not have otherwise considered.
Population health is influenced by health determinants. A few of these are:
- Socioeconomic status
- Education level of the individual
- Access to fresh produce
- Exposure to fast food and other unhealthy food alternatives
- Access to resources and health care
There is a reason there are more overweight individuals in rural Victoria in comparison to Melbourne CBD. It’s not that more overweight people just happen to live out that way.
This is largely due to the population health influences such as lower education levels, including education of what contributes to better or worse health outcomes, less access to fresh produce and reduced health care.
Around 3 in 10 (29%, or 7 million) Australians live in rural and remote areas where they can face a number of challenges due to geographic isolation, including difficulty accessing health services that many of us in the inner suburbs may take for granted. As a result, these populations experience poorer health outcomes compared to those of us in major cities.
People in rural and remote areas are also more likely to engage in behaviours associated with poorer health. For example, around 1 in 5 smoke, compared with 1 in 8 in major cities.
Some of these statistics are outlined in the figure below, which shows the results of a 2018 Australian study.
If we don’t have an understanding of these factors which contribute largely to an individual’s health, this is when it is easy for us to fall into the trap of victim blaming.
From a population health perspective, victim blaming occurs when we blame an individual for their current health status, e.g. we think it is their fault they are overweight, or their fault they have a smoking addiction, because they are simply a lazy person who eats too much junk and doesn’t bother to help themselves or exercise.
When we engage in victim blaming, we are failing to acknowledge the wider context of this person’s life and the external factors which, altogether, have largely contributed to the current state of their health.
Of course, population health determinants aren’t the only factors that contribute to a person’s current health status. It would be incorrect to say that someone’s health is completely due to these factors and not at all due to their own personal behaviours, decisions and beliefs.
However, often when we work with clients in a 1-1 setting, we are likely to only look at their personal behaviours (e.g. the number of times per week they choose eat take-away) and we fail to acknowledge the wider population health context (e.g. that they may have limited access to fresh produce, increased exposure to takeaway food stores, perhaps a lower level of health education, etc).
Image Source:Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2020
When we are looking at behavioural influences of the individual, here are a few population statistics that we may not have otherwise considered. Below are a few statistics regarding the behaviour patterns of Australians and the impact these can have on our physical and mental health:
Take-away consumption of Australians
The average Australian eats out more than four times a week, and almost half these meals are energy-dense meals such as burgers, fried chicken, pizzas, noodles and bakery items.A single energy-dense meal may contain most of an adult’s daily calorie intake, so many people are eating far too many calories without realising it.
Phone use and consequent sedentary behaviour of Australians
A 2018 study with data from 11,000 users we found that most people, on average, spend 3 hours and 15 minutes on our phones, with the top 20% of smartphone users have daily screen time in excess of 4.5 hours. Phone use is often linked with higher levels of sedentary behaviour, which contribute to poorer physical health and wellbeing and lower levels of overall energy output.
Sleep patterns of Australians
In 2017, VicHealth commissioned the Sleep Health Foundation to conduct a rapid review of recent research in the areas of population-level sleep patterns, the role of lifestyle factors in sleep disturbances and the links of these factors to poorer health and wellbeing. Across all age groups, poor sleeping patterns have been linked to poorer current and future mental health. The survey of young Australian adults found average weeknight sleep duration (7 hours 14 minutes) was just inside recommended levels. Key disruptors of sleep were found to be technology use before bed, stress, negative social interactions and stimulant consumption later in the day and at night.
Average sleep and quality of sleep was found to be influenced by a combination of biological, environmental and lifestyle factors.
Conclusively, when we consider the health of an individual, it is important to keep in mind that there is a much wider context to that person than the obvious things we may see on the surface. Usually as coaches, personal trainers and health professionals, we are quick to judge the health behaviours and attitudes of the individual that we see on the surface (I have certainly done this before) and blame this person for their poor health.
What I encourage you to take from this article, is that we must consider the wider context of this person’s upbringing and current lifestyle in order gain a greater understanding of why their health is the way it is, and to be able to work with them more effectively to create sustainable change.
https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/healthyliving/kilojoules-in-common-energy-dense-meals(Better Health Vic 2020)
https://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/-/media/ResourceCentre/PublicationsandResources/Mental-health/Summary-sleep-and-wellbeing-summary-report.pdf?la=en&hash=767B3589F60B0122368567813204E46FDAA8EA5C(Vic Health 2018)
https://blog.rescuetime.com/screen-time-stats-2018(Rescue Time Blog 2019)