How a research hub born out of the Olympics is addressing health inequalities

<span>At the Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park, experts who previously helped leading athletes maximise their potential are now turning their attention to improving the daily lives of local residents</span><span>Photograph: Mc Photography/none</span>
At the Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park, experts who previously helped leading athletes maximise their potential are now turning their attention to improving the daily lives of local residentsPhotograph: Mc Photography/none

In a corner of South Yorkshire lies an area that saw Sheffield dubbed the Steel City. Darnall, a suburb in the city’s east, was at one time almost exclusively a hub of industry that brought stainless steel to the world; it is now a centre of research and innovation that is addressing some of the biggest health challenges in the area and the region.

Now, Darnall is home to the Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park and the English Institute of Sport Sheffield, where Jessica Ennis-Hill, Anthony Joshua and other members of Team GB prepared for London 2012.

The area has undergone a stunning physical transformation – with research centres, sporting venues and community facilities sitting side by side. It is home to Sheffield Hallam University’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre and its National Centre of Excellence in Food Engineering. Darnall also hosts a new primary and secondary school, a University Technical College, a community sports stadium, the Canon Medical Arena, and the soon to be built National Centre of Child Health Technology led by Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust.

Sheffield Hallam has long been home to some of the world’s leading sports scientists, with a track record of working to help athletes maximise their abilities. But now these same experts are applying their knowledge to improve the daily lives of people in Darnall and surrounding areas, with the aim of keeping them healthier for longer.

“The NHS is under huge pressure because of increasing demands, and part of the work we’re doing is working out ways of engaging with people to keep them out of hospital,” says Prof Rory Duncan, pro vice-chancellor for Research, Innovation and Knowledge Exchange at Sheffield Hallam.

In January 2020, the university’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre opened in the centre of the park, supported by a £14m grant from the Department of Health and Social Care. It’s home to researchers from a range of disciplines and backgrounds, working alongside health and technology sector partners, charities and community groups. Oliver Coppard, the mayor of South Yorkshire, describes the centre’s research as a pivotal part of his mission to make South Yorkshire the healthiest region in the country.

This is a considerable challenge as the current gap in healthy life expectancy – or how long someone can expect to live without developing a chronic illness – between the poorest and richest parts of South Yorkshire is 20 years. Such inequalities also play out at a national scale with a recent report, based on data gathered between 2011 and 2019, finding that about a million people in England died earlier than they would have done if they had lived in postcodes where the richest 10% of the population reside.

“It’s very stark and that healthy life expectancy gap is certainly a drag on our economic performance,” says Coppard. “About a third of our productivity challenge in South Yorkshire is related to health inequalities. But there’s also a fundamental moral imperative that we fix that problem.”

Many of the projects being pioneered by the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre are focused around helping people to become more active. As an example, with funding from Yorkshire Cancer Research, experts are studying the best ways to support people diagnosed with cancer through so-called prehabilitation, the idea of trying to boost their health and fitness as much as possible before they undergo surgery or treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. This follows many studies that have illustrated that cancer patients who are in better physical condition are more likely to recover better and benefit more from treatment.

There are also research collaborations with a local charity, Darnall Well Being, which focus on social prescribing – the concept of connecting people in need to community activities and support services. These projects aim to understand how social prescribing could improve the physical and mental health of people in marginalised communities who are living with chronic long-term conditions ranging from long Covid, to frailty and dementia.

“Darnall has a number of health challenges,” says Lucy Melleney, chief executive of Darnall Well Being. “Poor housing is an issue, and the air quality is poor, as we’re close to the M1, so prevalence of respiratory conditions like asthma is quite high. Many people also have long-term conditions like chronic pain and diabetes.”

Some of the tools that have helped athletes to reach Olympic glory are now being used on a much wider scale to better understand some of the lifestyle factors that drive people to become unwell in the first place.

Duncan highlights the work being done by one researcher, Dr Alice Bullas, who is using 3D scanners, which are typically used to assess the muscle and fat composition of professional athletes, to precisely measure individual body shapes. The idea is to find a better way of assessing obesity in children and adults which overcomes some of the limitations of body mass index (BMI).

“BMI doesn’t apply well to children, and it doesn’t take into account variability across ethnic groups,” says Duncan. “This technology can be used to generate better data of obesity across diverse populations – different ethnic backgrounds, age and so on.”

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One of the most exciting projects is seeing Sheffield Hallam’s researchers collaborating with Google and the University of Sheffield as part of a pioneering new digital healthcare hub in South Yorkshire that launched last year with the specific goal of addressing healthcare inequalities through preventative medicine.

As part of an ongoing trial, it will see different populations across the region receive wearable devices that gather data on how their health changes over time, allowing scientists to understand how best to support them get fitter and healthier.

With the results expected to become available within the next five years, both Coppard and Duncan hope this will yield insights that could be used to address inequalities on a national basis and help relieve some of the ongoing pressures on the NHS.

“The preventative side of medicine is a huge opportunity, not just for South Yorkshire, but nationally,” says Coppard. “If we don’t want the NHS to topple over, then what we need to do is invest in the social determinants of health, and stop people getting sick in the first place. There’s a huge opportunity here for South Yorkshire and we want to lead the way on that.”

Find out more about how Sheffield Hallam University is solving health challenges