Health and housing are the twin focuses of a promising new study bringing together University of Exeter Medical School with Energy Saving Trust, Devon and Cornwall Public Health and the Northern, Eastern and Western Devon Clinical Commissioning Group (NEW CCG).
The eight-month research project, funded by Eaga Charitable Trust, aims to bring together property and public health data - with the hope of creating the clearest picture yet of the links between energy efficiency and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
Dr Richard Sharpe, Public Health Practitioner with Cornwall Council and an Honorary Fellow in the University of Exeter Medical School is leading the project with Dr Ben Wheeler, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health.
Dr Wheeler said “We know housing conditions can have a significant influence on human health and wellbeing. This project will attempt to better identify some of these linkages and help inform better policy on fuel poverty in the South West and beyond.” Existing evidence indicates that around 10% of excess winter deaths in England and Wales can be attributed to fuel poverty.
In this innovative project, two stages of data analysis will be used to investigate health linkages to fuel poverty. In the first stage, data from the Home Energy Efficiency Database (HEED) and NHS data will be analysed at national level. Energy Saving Trust Home Analytics data for Devon will then be linked with primary and secondary care data from NEW CCG to identify connections between housing quality and health service use.
This project brings together large secondary datasets to help inform future policy on fuel poverty. In total, information about 536,134 homes will be linked with health data. Dr Richard Sharpe said:
“This is the biggest study to date looking at housing and health data on a national level, and the more detailed analysis across Devon should help us understand what's going on. This hasn't been done before using these unique data sets.”
There have been a number of studies completed in this area before, but the aim is provide a far clearer and more definitive account. Dr Sharpe explained:
“We've reviewed available evidence, and outcomes so far have been inconsistent. But this will show the big picture of what is happening right down to area level, as opposed to the smaller studies that have come before. We can also look closer at the differences between, for example, privately-owned homes and social housing – something that has been difficult to do.”
The study is looking to draw out just how much of a good investment energy efficiency measures are as a way of tackling health problems – and the links between the two will be crystallised by adjusting for known factors including deprivation, urbanisation and air pollution. Dr Sharpe said:
“We're hoping it will give us the measure of how much home improvements and health are connected, and there will be cost-benefit analysis done to work out the potential health savings that can be made. It's a different level of evidence to support fuel poverty policies.”
So, while this isn't the first time such links have been explored – it could well be the most thorough. Energy Saving Trust Business Development Manager Karen Strandoo explained:
“There has been computer-based modelling work done to create large-scale pictures previously, but this is unique as it's using real data.”
Academic studies mean little to people living in fuel poverty unless tangible outcomes are achieved on the back of the work. So what might such outcomes look like in this case? Karen adds:
“It could potentially lead to tools being developed that primary care givers can use when seeing patients. This could mean that they could type in their address, ask a few questions, and establish whether the patient is in fuel poverty, and refer them for assistance.
“If this study does find a strong association between homes with poor energy efficiency and health problems, we can give patients the support they need.”
We'll keep you updated on this project as it progresses.