Scotland's stubborn health inequalities could be reduced if more funding was directed to the community groups that are directly saving lives, experts say.

John Cassidy, chairman of an organisation that represents third sector groups, said the country had an “amazing resource”of knowledge and expertise that was not being used to its full capacity because it is continually under threat.

He said there were “many case studies” of suicides being averted after patients were referred by GPs to community-led mental health groups.

A major £1.5million research project, led by Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU), will evaluate the impact of such initiatives on public health.

The three-year study, which is the biggest of its kind, will look at a wide range of community-led projects across the UK. These include walking groups, cookery lessons, community gardens and cafes.

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“Despite having a world-leading NHS, a great health system, it’s a still a fact that if you are born into a particular set of circumstances, you live a shorter, less healthy life than if you born into a more affluent circumstances,” said Rachel Baker, a professor of health economics at GCU, who is leading the project.

HeraldScotland:

“We’ve not solved that problem and it’s not going in the right direction.”

She went on: “One of the reasons this work is important is because it directs the attention away from a health system as being the solution, to communities, where health and wellbeing are created or where barriers are in place for people to achieve as much as they can in terms of living a good life.”

Researchers from GCU will work with the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, Queen’s University Belfast, Bournemouth University and the University of East London.

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They will study projects in Glasgow, Bournemouth, Belfast and East London.
John Cassidy, who is chairman of Scottish Communities for Wellbeing, has described the project as “critical”.

He said: “For too long scientists, officials and planners have decided what is good for communities.  

“We are so determined to ensure that governments, local and national, recognise the capacity, the expertise, the experience of community-led organisations to make a significant difference to health and wellbeing.

HeraldScotland:

“Scotland has this amazing resource that is not utilised because it is always under threat.

“They are under threat because there is no consistent support. It’s an after-thought.

“It’s really an extreme situation where government does not recognise what a major resource and this project is critical to us.

“If we are building this case for investment in community-led approaches to improving health and wellbeing then we need to have that kind of evidence, that Rachel and the team will provide, to make that argument stronger.”

He said mental health was a key area where community groups were “responding to local needs.”

He said: “GPs have increasingly found it difficult to response to a lot of the mental health issues.

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“Groups like Healthy N Happy [a community development trust based in Rutherglen and Cambuslang] and a lot of others are doing that, day in and day out.

“There are so many case studies of folk who have got near the point of suicide – and have credited the organisation with drawing them back.”

Professor Baker, who is Director of the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health at GCU, said public health has evolved from infectious diseases to risk factors and behaviours to the “complex community space”.

“How does social connectedness affect health and wellbeing? 

“How does a sense of purpose, a sense of value affect your health and wellbeing?

“Hopefully, we will be able to extract some general messages and say to governments, if you really want to make a difference, this is what works.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said:“We are committed to addressing the underlying causes of health inequalities – we are committed to ending poverty, increasing equitable access to fair employment and improving our physical and social environments.

"Alongside action across government to improve the determinants of health, we are adopting a place-based approach to local health improvement.

"We will target actions in areas and communities most in need to ensure equity in our approach, thus avoid widening inequalities further.

“We will focus on cultivating community-led health improvement activity as we know how vital these organisations are in addressing health inequalities.

"We are looking at how we can better integrate community-led health organisations within local health and social care delivery.

"This will be achieved by working more effectively in partnership across government and with our local partners across all sectors. Community partners will shape what we are doing and steer long-term solutions and we intend to set out key priorities and approach in the coming months.”