In February 2020, in partnership with the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Welcome Trust and WHO, Wilton Park in Feb 2020, hosted a high-level meeting of senior leaders and experts from a wide range of organisations and interests including those focused primarily on health, climate, food, urban planning, local and national government, civil society, consumers, the private sector and international agencies for a global conversation to identify ways to build healthy societies and therefore healthy populations.

The highly informative and interactive meeting was organized with the aim to explore social, economic and environmental determinants of healthy societies, the promotion of cross-sectoral approaches for better health and the prioritization of health in other sectoral policies and settings. The meeting explored how to take practical steps to ensure that societies become ‘healthier’, where people stay healthy and need minimal medical services.

While people in many countries are living longer, they are not necessarily living healthier lives. Changes in societies have contributed to improved health but have also caused many challenges and risks to people’s health and well-being.  Economic development has raised hundreds of millions of people out of poverty but is also driving many societal changes with less positive health impacts e.g. less healthy food, less physical activity, more air pollution, more stress and mental illness, with the burden of disease shifting towards NCDs. Economic and social inequities also drive inequities in health outcomes, which are widening in many countries. New challenges to health are rising including through climatic changes and for example the impact of excessive heat or temperature extremes, or lack of water.

Patrick Mwesigye team leader UYAHF making a presentation during the Health societies for healthy populations meeting

The World Health Organization has committed to the ‘triple billion’ goals, with the aim of providing a further billion people with better health and well-being (in addition to ensuring that a billion more people have universal health coverage and protecting a billion more people from health emergencies).Through the conversations, there were many questions that were posed and these included the following: What would better health and well-being look like? What are the societal determinants and surrounding factors that enables healthy society and population levels? What will this mean in practice, for example in systems and societal change? How can this be achieved? What are the potential co-benefits between actions for our climate and people’s health?

To answer the above questions, the following participants at the meeting expressed deep concern at the existing situation of health and well-being around the world, and a sense that current actions are not meeting the scale of the challenges we face or addressing their depth. Economic and social inequities, climate change, industries driving unhealthy outcomes, poor mental health and stress are just some of the big issues the world must address. Existing approaches to health are not working well enough. There is an urgent need to respond to problems of health and well-being in ways that are different to before. 
You will recall that agenda 2030 sets an ambitious agenda for health (SDG3), and through the interdependent 17 SDGs demands a radically different and holistic approach. The goal is healthier lives and wellbeing for all not merely survival.

Innovative approaches will be needed to boost healthier populations and societies if the goal of ensuring a further billion people are healthier as defined by WHO is to be met.  To address the main risk factors behind the rapid escalation of NCDs, mental health and other causes of ill-health and early deaths such as the threats caused by Anti-microbial resistance, systemic change will be needed through collaboration between leaders and experts well beyond the traditional health sector.

Throughout the various conversations, there was consensus that to achieve the goal of health societies and healthy populations, there is need to; address barriers that undermine social, economic and environmental determinants of healthy societies, promote multi-sectoral approaches for better health and prioritizing health in policies and healthy settings. Equally, understanding better the dynamics between people’s growing demand for health, commercial factors and political decisions, and how to transform societal health, and leverage institutions and incentives the different actors who shape citizens’ health, and empower the citizens themselves to make healthier choices.The outcome of the conference could potentially both advise the continued work by WHO and potentially lead to an agreement on the need for more analytical and policy work on this theme e.g. by the establishment of a Commission of Healthy Societies for Healthy People.