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08 July 2013

Health column - Welsh NHS Confederation

Helen Birtwhistle, Director of the Welsh NHS Confederation

Our health and homes are recognised as two important cornerstones within our lives. Indeed the relationship between health and housing has long been recognised by Government as being influential to a nation’s long term welfare.

As Clement Atlee led a post-war Labour Government into power, he gave Aneurin Bevan responsibility for two of the most sensitive Cabinet posts – health and housing. Both were crying out for attention at that time. Britain had several million bomb damaged houses in urgent need of attention and the public had been anticipating the establishment of a national health system since 1942. It was regarded as a time of renewal.

We are once again looking at greater integration between health and housing as the changes within NHS Wales seek to provide quality healthcare closer to people’s homes instead of always focusing solely on hospitals.

To facilitate greater partnership working, the Welsh NHS Confederation is supporting the Health and Housing Conference at Cardiff City Stadium on Thursday 18th July organised by Community Housing Cymru Group. The event will engage health, housing and social care professionals in exploring best practice, identifying barriers and discussing opportunities for increased joint-working. With Conference keynote speaker Health Minister, Mark Drakeford outlining the challenges that NHS Wales faces, members of the housing services will be seeking ways in which they can be better networked within local health communities in the future.

The communities we live in provide emotional support as well as a sense of identity and wellbeing. In essence, good quality housing is crucial to our physical and mental health.
For many people independent living is their goal and research indicates it can significantly improve health and contribute to an improved quality of life. Hywel Dda Health Board is one of the partners in a current health impact study, believed to be the first of its kind in Wales. It aims to understand the important link between good housing and health by tracking health benefits following improvements made in council homes in Carmarthenshire. Extra care housing, energy efficiency improvements, rapid response adaptations, home improvement programmes are all ways that can support and enable independent living.

More people being cared for in their own homes and communities is something that NHS Wales wholeheartedly encourages and is a planned part of service change. It has many benefits. Firstly, by having proper supportive care, it would prevent or reduce hospital admissions or allow earlier discharge. Secondly having a safe and modified home environment could prevent accidents that lead to long-term hospital admission. Both will make more hospital beds available for those that need to be in hospital. Having a greater cross over between health and housing may also contribute to a reduction in health inequalities within the Welsh population.

While the Health and Housing Conference will be looking at creating future collaborative projects, there are already good examples of joint working in Wales. Just one example is a project agreed between Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board and Gwalia that will redevelop Swansea’s former Fairwood Hospital as a home for people with learning disabilities. They are currently forced to live away from family, friends and their familiar communities. The development will create two bungalows on the existing site. It will provide accommodation for eight people including two self contained apartments. The proposals will create suitable accommodation for people with high support needs to live in a less institutionalised setting.

Both health and housing are complex systems that can, by working together, improve the health and wellbeing of a huge number of people in Wales as well as ensuring value for money from joint initiatives.
The way forward means sharing knowledge and identifying new opportunities together. This is the perfect time in the evolution of our healthcare system in Wales to take the initiative and create our own era of renewal.

Further information on the Health and Housing Conference on 18th July is available from Community Housing Cymru Group.