• Open Access

A reader in promoting public health: challenge and controversy

Edited by JennyDouglas, SarahEarle, StephenHandsley, Cathy E.Lloyd and SueSpurr . Published by Sage Publications , London 2007 . Paperback 287 pages . ISBN 9 781412 93075 8

Reviewed by Helen Keleher

Department of Health Science, Monash University, Victoria

One of the strengths of this book is the breadth of public health content that it covers, albeit in short, pithy chapters. The 31 chapters (of which 10 are reprinted or are a revised version of a previously published article) are organised into five themed parts, each introduced by one of the editors: Back to the future: reflections on multidisciplinary public health; Deconstructing and reconstructing public health; Researching health; Promoting public health through public policy; and Promoting public health at a local level.

The book begins with a memo to Sir Edwin Chadwick, the architect of the 1848 British Public Health Act, to mark the 150th anniversary of that landmark piece of legislation. Written by Iqbal Sram and John Ashton, the memo was first published in the BMJ in 1998, and has been updated and contextualised for the early 21st century for this book. The authors note current challenges for public health, but assure Sir Edwin that his legacy is in good hands. The chapters selected for part one take the reader through public health challenges from health promotion and the politics of health through to the potential for social marketing based on free-market liberal approaches overtaking collectivist ‘paternalistic’ public health.

Part two is introduced as an eclectic range of cutting-edge issues which serve to deconstruct and reconstruct public health in the 21 st century. Nightclubs and substance use, yoga, women's reproductive rights, disability rights, and sex work are included to stimulate thinking about the complexities of public health in relation to these issues. Given the complex nature of construction and deconstruction, students may not grasp the significance of the theme for this part of the book. Nor are the theories of deconstruction explained so the way of presenting material on this theme is not a straightforward approach to dealing with complex challenges of deconstruction, even though each of the chapters will have interest for readers.

Part three begins with an overview of public health research methodologies by Fran Baum and an evaluation of health promotion by David McQueen. These two erudite pieces are followed somewhat incongruously by a chapter on the anthropometry of Barbie to make a case for challenging statistical methods and what is accepted as ‘scientific’ and ‘objective’. In this section you will also find chapters from feminist research perspectives and another that highlights lay perspectives in relation to research with diabetes services users.

Part four has a clearer logic. The theme of ‘promoting public health through public policy’ is addressed through solid chapters that explore various dimensions of global health and globalisation, poverty and inequalities with engaging chapters on terrorism and public health, the challenges for public health of economic change across the globe, and the problems of refugees, social exclusion and public health.

Part five covers public health at local levels with a focus on participatory and community action approaches to promoting public health, their implementation and evaluation. Chapters introduce concepts of social capital, health impact assessment and mental health promotion as well as the potential for reform of prison health.

The nature of a collection such as this is that the reader is enabled to browse across a wide range of topics and issues or take the time to read with more intent to gain more understanding. One of the shortcomings of a reader such as this is that the debates allowed to emerge through the chapters are not discussed, weighed up or reflected upon. That leaves much scope for the readers of this book to ponder and consider the issues raised by the various contributors.

The book has been prepared for a student audience which accounts for the briefness of many of the chapters. That conciseness may be attractive to many student readers although such brevity can also mean that issues are merely raised by the contributing authors rather than explored in any depth. Those students capable of deeper exploration will want to do so perhaps using the references at the end of chapters. As it is intended to be a teaching aid, this book would have benefited from the addition of discussion questions at the end of each chapter to guide and stimulate debate.