ONE WOMAN is on a serious mission to improve the region's wellbeing.
Dr Shelley Bowen has led a career in health spanning more than 20 years and now she is calling on communities, businesses and industries to work together to improve health outcomes in the Central Highlands.
Two years ago she founded not-for-profit Health Futures Australia.
"It came out of concern to the growing scale of and number of preventable chronic diseases in the community that were not seeing any shift or change," Dr Bowen said.
"A collection of people from a whole range of professions and disciplines from law, sociology, public health, financing and environment got together and said there had to be something we could do to turn the tide around, particularly in what we call risk factors to chronic disease."
Dr Bowen said the region was displaying a large number of preventable chronic diseases, so strategies needed to be implemented to keep the population well so they did not end up in line at hospitals.
"In some parts of this region we are looking at 30 per cent of the population being obese. On average across the region, about 63 per cent would be overweight or obese adults. Now 26 or 27 per cent of our children are overweight or obese and once that is set in motion, that leads children and young people on a lifelong path," she said.
But the good news is that something can be done to reverse these statistics.
"This is largely preventable. We have got to change the food system. We have got to make fresh food accessible and affordable. Nobody should be left behind on health and wellbeing."
Dr Bowen said there was an evident social gradient in the region, meaning the lower the income, the more likely a person would experience negative health outcomes.
"Our population here is about to double in size so we need a wellbeing system in place to ensure that we don’t recede to be far worse than we already are now. Some of the chronic diseases are in epidemic proportions here and we need to turn this around. We need to act now."
"It's so layered, the same applies to your health, education and employment. So much is connected to your postcode and opportunities. No matter where you're born and choose to live, this is a healthy nation and should mean access and opportunity to everything."
It’s back to the old idea of taking back to the streets and saying enough is enough. Everybody deserves every opportunity to be as healthy and as well as possible, and that’s not how it's playing out right now. There is enormous inequality in health in this region and nationally and this is happening on our watch. Let’s do something about it.Dr Shelley Bowen
THE FIRE IN THE BELLY
For the past decade, Dr Bowen has focused on how to mobilise communities and regions, and how to get other people passionate about health and wellness.
She said the nation had a fire in the belly to act on tobacco and the change in the past 30 years had been enormous.
"So now we are looking at how we can do similar with our health and wellbeing on many fronts, particularly in diet and nutrition. I’ve been really focused on leading big efforts, big policy and large scale community efforts for a good decade now."
But finding solutions to the complex social challenges is difficult.
"There are some views that it’s an education issue - once people know how much sugar is in a sugary drink, it makes a difference. But really this is about the whole system. We have a current way we live our lives that makes it really hard to navigate a healthier way forward."
She said fresh food availability and accessibility, pricing and marketing made it difficult.
"Every environment we go into - our sporting clubs, our supermarkets, some of our main streets are just littered with fast food options - so how do we as a population and as a community, demand healthy options wherever we go? If we demand it, it will be supplied.
"Some of that [demand] is building and you can see it in parts of this region, which are really strong on local food and where it comes from. Let’s enjoy food, let’s get back to preparing food and let’s make that connection with food and wellbeing in particular."
Dr Bowen said though government policy around food labelling, food regulation strategies, a physical activity promotion strategy and a sugar tax was important, we also need a grassroots movement. Every place people spend their lives - schools, childcare, workplaces, hospitals and sporting clubs - need to move towards healthy choices being the norm.
She said, as an example, sporting clubs being sponsored by fast food outlets and rewarding children with junk food was perpetuating the problem.
"I think at a community level it is the time for extraordinary leadership. There is nothing like people with a purpose and passion for change to lead the conversation and to be prepared to really challenge some of the norms that are in front of us each and every day."
My children are handed vouchers for junk food whenever they kick a goal or sign up to a new sport - isn’t there something we need to be questioning about that?Dr Shelley Bowen
"It’s really difficult to thrive in communities. So many community organisations are based on volunteering and an extraordinary effort but what comes with that is the reach of sporting clubs, which is so enormous. We need to work together to create the healthiest environment as possible.
Dr Bowen said she saw the future as designing the people’s healthy food policy.
"The challenge is the layers of strategy required. As a nation it is a call to action and that is very much what Health Futures Australia is set up to do - to say don’t keep treating it simply, treat is as a big change that is required and let's resource it, mobilise it in cities and regions to fight for wellbeing. Of course this also relates to how active we are because we are increasingly leading sedentary lifestyles."
She said this could be done through a campaign, so people would be a part of a wider movement that drives change.
"This is all about changing the system, but it’s also really tough to expect people to change their behaviour when the environments around them aren’t changing. Important messaging, united action, leadership development and community conversations around the health benefits of physical activity, eating well and consuming less sugar."
She said using technology to create digital networks and engage people to be healthier was an option to engage people.
"We need to shift to where our diets are full of nutritious foods, which seems harder than it should be. For us to unravel and create a movement that activates that and uses available resources. There’s so much great information, we don't have to start from scratch but how do we bring it to people, activate it and bring it to life so it's front and centre so it becomes valuable, critical information to navigate our days?"
THE SOCIAL ENTERPRISE
Dr Bowen said Health Futures was operating as a social enterprise with an aim to build strong communities.
"We are hoping to build strong, prosperous, robust communities to try to make the measure of prosperity in this region its health and wellbeing.
It’s not just about transport systems, it’s not just about tourism, but wellbeing should be right up there as one of the most critical issues our region faces.Dr Shelley Bowen
Health Futures Australia has a vision of networking 100 communities nationwide by 2025. That is up to four million Australians.
"We have a really big vision to drive a dynamic movement, a shift to power of the people around creating and wanting healthier options to be the norm, not the exception. This is really important. It’s very normalised now that you have to look really hard for the healthy options, but we want to turn it around."
Dr Bowen was recently awarded a Westpac Social Change Fellowship worth $50,000.
"The fellowship backs you and your vision for change and helps you develop your expertise and skills to deliver deliver significant social change," Dr Bowen said.
She said it would help her to lead change, especially in investing and funding preventative health efforts right through to how they are led.
"What the foundation has done is enable me a pathway to a network of people, real innovators, leaders, thinkers nationally and internationally so I have access to this thinking, skills, categories and resources so I can bring it back to Health Futures and our regions and communities.
"Our start up is in public and population health but there is an extraordinary landscape now emerging in not only this region, but nationally of startup and social innovation models. I think we are at the forefront of that. I have taken what I have learnt in a career of 20 plus years in levels of government and a whole range of environments nationally, internationally and now to regional because I believe the solution rests with community."
She said she would like Health Futures to be connected globally in future, with the base to remain in Ballarat.