Wales should 'unite against obesity' - US health expert

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Media captionDr Tracey Cooper, chief executive of Public Health Wales, says it is important things are in place by the time a child turns two.

A former health adviser to US President Barack Obama has said the size of Wales makes it well placed to improve the NHS and tackle the obesity "epidemic".

Prof Don Berwick said with "smart government" and allowing doctors and nurses to do their jobs, the country could be united behind a common vision.

"You've got over 300 agencies working on health - if you work together, there's nothing you can't achieve."

Prof Berwick was at a conference of public health experts in Cardiff.

He is co-founder of the Institute of Healthcare Improvement in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and looked at patient safety in the NHS in England for the UK government after the Mid Staffordshire Hospital scandal.

The inquiry found patients were let down due to cost-cutting and target-chasing ahead of the quality of care.

Prof Berwick said there were lessons from Mid Staffs for the NHS in Wales.

"We have doctors, nurses and managers who want to do the right thing. When there's too much pressure on them, too much surveillance, too much measurement, too much focus on carrots and sticks, they lose the ability to really devote themselves to their work," he said.

"A culture of trust, avoiding blame and pulling people together to do the right things is a very important task for leaders.

"That's what I like about what seems to be possible about Wales, a country of this size can unite behind a common vision."

Overweight and obese children

Four and five-year-olds in Wales


Of overweight children, aged 4-5, become obese aged 8-9

  • 18.6% stay overweight, aged 8-9

  • 47.3% become healthy weight, aged 8-9

  • 82.5% of obese children still obese at 8-9

  • 7.5% of obese children become healthy weight aged 8-9


As a paediatrician and former administrator of President Obama's federal Medicare health insurance programme, Prof Berwick added: "You want to have aims. Why not end poverty in Wales, why not end the obesity epidemic - be an example for the world?

"The wisdom lies in the periphery - it lies in the people doing the work, the local health boards, the doctors and nurses.

"A smart government recruits energy around a common vision and then gives the people who are doing the work the tools and respect to allow that work to go ahead. That's what they forgot in Mid Staffs, we don't have to repeat that, and Wales can lead the way."

Image caption Prof Don Berwick was at the conference at Cardiff's Swalec Stadium

Health Minister Mark Drakeford said government had a public health role to play - and would do more in Wales if it had the powers.

"We would certainly have a more mandatory approach with the food industry. Sugar is unavoidable in the way we live our lives because it's already in the food in the shops.

"There's more we could and should do to reduce sugar content.

"We should look seriously at sugar taxes, and in Wales we should have the same powers they have already in Scotland and Northern Ireland to allow local authorities in giving planning permissions to take into account the public health impact of yet another fast food outlet, yet another alcohol or tobacco outlet.

"We will continue to lobby hard to get that power to do good things here in Wales."

Dr Tracey Cooper, chief executive of Public Health Wales, said the challenge was ensuring young children were on track by the age of two to avoid obesity taking hold.

She also said it was important the health message was taken away from "antiquated buildings in the wrong places" into communities and homes by young "ambassadors," teachers, housing workers, families and friends.

"They will be the people we rely on for the future, not people with posh briefcases telling people what to do and not what to do, we've got to be more sophisticated in how and who we interact with," she added.

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