Support shared objectives to achieve intersectoral collaboration

Adjunct Professor Tarun Weeramanthri
Adjunct Professor Tarun Weeramanthri

The President of the Public Health Association of Australia, Adjunct Professor Tarun Weeramanthri, has called on the public health community to “act in the world” – to synthesise evidence, tell stories that will engage others, and then develop partnerships to drive change.

Speaking in a PreventionWorksLIVE webinar, Adjunct Professor Weeramanthri said it is essential to engage with other sectors and drive ownership for change beyond health. However, it is a mistake to assume that health is what drives all people.

Pursuing health in all policies is not always an effective way of driving change in sectors outside of health, he said.

“I have never been a great supporter of health in all policies. It looks like health is the most important thing and we are going to tell you what to do to improve health, but I’ve always found it’s not a particularly effective way to engage other departments, so I haven’t used that framing,” he said.

“Everyone assumes health is the only thing that counts, but I’m not going to start from a position that assumes a slight health imperialism.”

Adjunct Professor Weeramanthri, a community physician, is former Chief Health Officer of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. He was the leading force behind the establishment in the 1990s of the territory’s chronic conditions prevention and management strategy, which remains in place today.

While the strategy was highly successful in driving change in the management of chronic diseases such as renal disease in the Northern Territory, its weakness was its lack of traction on the broader social determinants of health, he said.

He said the question for the public health community was not to ask what other sectors can do for us, but to create the argument that action will meet all of our objectives better.

“If you’re from education, there’s a reason I’m asking to talk about health and chronic disease because it’s going to in some way help you achieve what you want to achieve in education. It’s about trying to understand what those other people are coming to the table with and what their agendas are, so we can have a conversation about how to meet whole-of-government objectives and each other’s objectives.”

Adjunct Professor Weeramanthri said an effective way of engaging others was to tell a high-level, simple story that summarises the evidence for change, as he had done in his recent work on the Western Australian Government’s Inquiry into the Impacts of Climate Change on Health

The report brought together numerous expert inputs and stories gathered through the inquiry process, written for readers who knew nothing about climate science. The process forged partnerships for change that showed the government there was a high level of support for action.

“Simplicity is key,” Adjunct Professor Weeramanthri said.