Superheroes needed to tackle timebomb of public health challenges

Health news

Public health 'superheroes' are needed to help tackle the growing challenges posed by obesity, alcohol, smoking and other public health threats, according to new research published today.

The research, an international collaboration from the Universities of Leeds, Alberta and Wisconsin, calls for government and policy makers to recognise the role that public health leaders can play in addressing these significant health challenges.

It suggests that potential public health ‘superheroes’ can come from both within public health disciplines, and perhaps more importantly, from outside the profession.

However, the research also questions the ability of current public health professionals to lead and influence policy. Instead, it voices concerns about the “corporatisation” of public health in compromising leaders’ abilities to speak out as independent advocates for the health of the public.

The results are published today in Lancet.

One of the lead authors of the research, Professor Darren Shickle, head of the Academic Unit of Public Health at the University of Leeds, said: “Public health as a specialty has been stifled by re-organisation and it is critical that both current and new professionals have help in becoming more effective leaders. You only have to look at the role that Jamie Oliver has played as someone who has the ability to engage, inspire and make a difference. But we need to act now to ensure public health leaders at all levels have the skills, resilience and influence to address the public health challenges of today and the future.”

World Health Organisation data reveals the extent of the challenge, indicating that that worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980 and that the harmful use of alcohol results in 2.5 million deaths each year. Tobacco kills nearly 6 million people each year and according to the Department of Health, smoking accounts for over 100,000 deaths every year in the UK alone.

Professor Tom Oliver, from the University of Wisconsin, added: “We must ensure that leaders across many sectors of society understand the causes and consequences of these major threats to health and well-being.  More importantly, we must develop leaders who can translate that understanding into political support for evidence-based responses to those threats.  The most effective leaders combine systematic analysis of problems and potential solutions, and have an ability to recruit partners and champions for new policies and practices.”

Across the UK, local governments are preparing to take on a wider remit for public health from April 2013, with new duties to improve the health of their communities. Professor Shickle believes this transference of public health functions to local authorities presents significant challenges but there are also opportunities for both developing current leaders and recruiting new ‘superheroes’.

He said: “The new public health system is moving forwards rapidly now, opening up doors to a growing number of effective leaders who can occupy key positions and intervene at all levels to bring about radical changes in social attitudes and behaviour. Challenges posed by obesity and alcohol alone represent a ticking timebomb, with huge implications for health budgets, but effective public health leaders can play a  central role in driving this change.”

Commenting on current levels of public health leadership training across the world, Professor Ken Zakariasen, from the University of Alberta, added: “Many public health leadership programmes are responding with much more sophisticated training to prepare leaders.  However, this research has identified that public health training varies internationally, and considerably more effort is required to develop the higher levels of leadership.”

Funded by the Worldwide Universities Network, the study, Time for Heroes: public health leadership in the 21st century, called on 3000 members of the UK Faculty of Public Health to nominate their ‘superhero’. Ten in-depth interviews were carried out amongst public health leaders, operating on the international, national and local level, to identify current and future challenges in public health leadership and training.

Further information:

Professor Darren Shickle is available for interview. Please contact the University of Leeds Press Office on +44 (0)113 343 4031 or email

Time for heroes: public health leadership in the 21st century is published in Lancet

The authors in the collaborative international research project were:
  • UK: Mr Matthew Day, Professor Darren Shickle, Dr Kevin Smith - Academic Unit of Public Health, Leeds Institute of Health Sciences, University of Leeds
  • Canada: Professor Ken Zakariasen - Department of Public Health Sciences, Edmonton Clinic Health Academy, University of Alberta
  • USA: Professor Tom Oliver - School of Medicine and Public Health, and Mr. Jacob Moskol  - Global Health Institute, University of Wisconsin-Madison 

University of Leeds: The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of the largest and most comprehensive universities in the U.S.  It offers a wide range of over 400 undergraduate, graduate and professional programs.  UW—Madison is one of the top ten public universities in the U.S. and is ranked 19th in the Academic Ranking of World Universities.

The University of Alberta

Facts and figures:

World Health Organisation’s factsheets on:

Department of Health statistics on: