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Your Health Hubs – helping people to make new healthy habits

by Michael Walsh | Analysis

11 January 2017

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Millions of us make resolutions at this time of year to help us become fitter, happier and more productive people.

New Year is a great opportunity to make changes that can make a difference to our health – including our risk of getting cancer.

More than 4 in 10 cases of cancer could be prevented. Stopping smoking, exercising more, cutting down the calories or limiting the amount of alcohol we drink are all good ways to help reduce the risk of cancer.

But how many of us will be sticking to these goals by next Christmas? Or Summer? Or even the end of the month? Following through on good intentions is tough, and most of us need as much help as we can get.

We’ve already discussed how science can help your New Year’s resolutions stick, but how can Cancer Research UK help?

In September we launched a pilot project called Your Health Hub to support people to develop new healthy habits, which follows on from a successful smaller pilot in 2015.

The idea builds on the success of our ongoing Cancer Awareness Roadshows which have been supporting people in local communities for ten years now. They do lots of the same things as the Hubs, but with the Hubs we return every two weeks so that our cancer awareness nurses can offer ongoing support.

And we’re using the techniques talked about here to boost the chances of those good intentions becoming new habits.

All the nurses are passionate and enthusiastic about the work we are doing, and we see the difference we’re making to people’s lives

– Lesley Green, Cancer Research UK nurse

This is the first time that we’ve used so-called ‘habit-theory’ in our work in the community to support people to make lasting changes to their health.

We encourage people to pick a change that works for them and to think about what might get in the way – and how to cope with this.

So how will it work?

A guiding hand along the way to new healthy habits

We know that for many people, it’s incredibly hard to access the right information and have the support they need to make positive and sustained changes for their health. This is where our nurses come in.

The point of the Hubs is that they’re an ongoing conversation with a friendly face, which can be really powerful and too often isn’t available.

The Hubs are pop-up stands we set up in prominent areas like shopping centres and libraries, and we’ll be at each location every fortnight. This will let passers-by have an informal chat with our nurses and we have private areas if people want an in-depth conversation.

To start off, we’re testing the idea in the north-east of England and in Glasgow for six months, with sessions (up to six in total) that are free and open to all.

We’ve chosen places in these areas to try to reach people who most need our support – those who often face problems in accessing health information and services that could help them.

To tackle this, we’ve trained a team of experienced nurses to give free information and one-on-one guidance and encouragement.

“All the nurses are passionate and enthusiastic about the work we are doing, and we see the difference we’re making to people’s lives,” says Lesley Green, a Cancer Research UK Your Health Hub nurse.

“The Hubs let the nurses offer ongoing support to our visitors – we can help and encourage them to make new healthy habits. In other cases, we encourage people to see their GP if they have a concerning sign or symptom. We have had some great success stories and I find it very rewarding to be able to help,” says Lesley.

Our nurses tailor the information they provide to each person they speak to, so that it is as relevant and useful as possible. No two conversations are the same.

A 'traffic light' food label

Eating right isn’t always easy

“People can drop by or book a time slot with us. We’ve had a number of visitors come back for further support and we’re establishing a recognised local presence in some of the areas where need is greatest.”

“The Hubs provide trusted information in a confidential, friendly environment,” says Lesley. “Being in the heart of the community lets us establish relationships and tell people about useful local services – some of which are on-site.”

Small changes, big difference

To help people with their health goals we’re focusing on a few areas where small adjustments can have a big impact.

An obvious focus is what you eat. We know that it affects the risk of getting a number of cancers which is why we want to encourage and support people to try to eat more healthily.

Since this is easier said than done, we’re hoping that the support and information that our nurses will provide across multiple visits can make a big difference.

Another focus is early diagnosis – the longer cancer goes unnoticed, the harder it can be to treat once it’s diagnosed. But when the disease is diagnosed at an early stage, treatment is more likely to be successful.

“We often speak to people who have a sign or symptom they are worried about,” says Lesley. “The Hubs give us the time to talk and encourage them to see their GP. We even have phones they can use if they don’t have access to one to make an appointment there and then.”

The Hubs are trying to make sure people know what’s available to help them, so that they know who to turn to when something’s not quite right.

“There can be a lot of barriers to acting on changes and seeing a GP,” Lesley adds. “The Hubs can work through some of these with our visitors, encouraging and supporting where needed.”

Another area we’re focusing on is screening for bowel cancer. It’s not always an easy thing to discuss, and awareness and the number of people taking part could be a lot higher.

Fruit and vegetables have a small protective effect against cancer

Healthy habits are key

Our nurses are able to get across that the screening test isn’t as difficult to do as people might think. They can also take the time to talk about any questions people might have and about any barriers to taking part.

Because this is just a six month pilot we’ll be looking at how well it works – our Cancer Intelligence team, which assesses projects like this one, will look at how successful the Hubs have been.

They’ll look at many things including whether the Hubs have reached the right people in sufficient numbers, as well as if those people have kept up the healthy changes as result of visiting.

Our assessment of our projects is really important – our work with the Roadshow influenced this pilot project, and this in turn will affect how we plan and run future projects. We’re getting as much evidence into our work as possible!

A helping hand

All of the small decisions we make each day add up to influence how healthy we are. But knowing what the best approach is and what help is out there can be key.

Also, because our nurses can follow-up with people through repeat visits, they can guide them along the way and help them stick to their healthy changes.

So if you’re in and around the north-east of England or in Glasgow, look out for the Your Health Hub teams.

And if the project is successful, we’ll be making it round to more areas in the near future too.