How Fleetwood is pioneering a town-wide health scheme

PUBLISHED: 17:45 07 January 2020 | UPDATED: 17:45 07 January 2020

Dr Mark Spencer at the Fleetwood Health and Wellbeing Centre

Dr Mark Spencer at the Fleetwood Health and Wellbeing Centre

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A scheme to improve the health of a whole town is showing real results in Fleetwood

Fleetwood Town FC chairman Andy PilleyFleetwood Town FC chairman Andy Pilley

The last few decades have been tough for Fleetwood. The collapse of fishing industry in the 1970s and 80s was a huge blow and it was compounded in the 90s when ICI, another major employer, closed its chemical plant nearby.

Standing at the northern end of the Fylde coast, Fleetwood has no passing trade - anyone visiting has to have a reason to go there and with a struggling high street and a decline in industry, there were fewer reasons to make the journey.

And Fleetwood's decline had a real impact on the residents' health - physical and mental. Rates of drug and alcohol use rose, admissions to hospital were up and there was a spate of suicides among younger men.

In 2016 Dr Mark Spencer marked 25 years of working as a GP in the town and looking back on his time there he realised the health of the town had deteriorated.

'That frustrated me and I wanted to have a conversation about why that was and how we could make Fleetwood healthier,' he said. 'There had been considerable investment, we had brilliant new primary care facilities, dedicated health professionals and other groups working hard for the good of the town, but still the health of the town had still deteriorated.'

He called a meeting and built on pioneering work done by Hazel Stuteley who led a project to improve the health of people on the Beacon Estate in Falmouth, Devon. Her work there in the 1990s was informed by three words: connected, confident and control. By connecting people their confidence grows and they are more able to take control of their lives, their health and their future. It's a model that Dr Spencer wanted to replicate in Fleetwood.

#LoveFleetwood#LoveFleetwood

'Fleetwood has had lots of things done to the town over the years by very well-meaning agencies, including the NHS, and they were not necessarily what the town wanted,' he said. 'This social movement is all about putting residents in control of their own health, their own street, their own community. My role has been to listen to the residents and to try to create an environment where residents are able to do things for themselves.'

Where Dr Spencer previously prescribed tablets, he is now more likely to recommend one of the many social groups that have launched around the town and which he discusses with patients in consultations.

'We thrive in the company of other people and our health deteriorates when we are isolated so by encouraging people to connect we can improve their health,' he said. 'That's why we have so many groups now - art, singing, crochet and many more - they are ways of getting people together. That's probably the biggest thing we do: bringing people together.

'People can only become more self-confident by being a do-er - the less you do and the more you are done to, the more your self-confidence and your mental health deteriorate. By coming together at a group, people are doing more. The residents group is involved in everything and by putting them at the centre of the project they have more control and they are doing things for themselves.

'When you pay attention to those three Cs, not only does health improve, but people develop hope for a better future.

'If you're leading a hard existence where getting though today is enough and you have no hope for tomorrow then you tend not to look after yourself, you do things that help you through the day - drink, drugs, over-eating. When you start building hope and you have something to look forward to, those destructive behaviours start to decrease without being told by a doctor to drink less or eat more healthily - your mental health improves and you become more active.'

Dr Mark Spencer at the Fleetwood Health and Wellbeing CentreDr Mark Spencer at the Fleetwood Health and Wellbeing Centre

Among the examples Dr Spencer offers of people who have benefited from the Healthier Fleetwood scheme, is the story of a man who had a congenital heart condition which led to him having a heart attack in his 30s. He was given medication which controlled the physical condition but his mental health suffered and he spent a along time out of work and lost any hope that things would improve.

He was signposted towards a gardening group and started there one morning a week. Within a few months he was turning up three times a week and then he managed to get a job.

Dr Spencer is animated and passionate as he speaks about how the movement has changed lives. And it's not only patients who have made changes, he too now does things differently.

'It's no good for us as doctors to just say "stop smoking" because people smoke for a reason,' he said. 'Smokers often have lung problems and singing is good for the lungs so we express a positive - 'joining the Health and Harmony singers could help you' - and they find all sorts of benefits: their breathing improves, and they also develop confidence, establish friendships and have fun. And then maybe they find that they aren't smoking as much.

'The outside perception of Fleetwood is often of a town that's down on its knees and disadvantaged. People sneer or take pity on Fleetwood but there is a sense of pride here and other towns are now looking at what we have done and how they can replicate things - in January we'll be talking to representatives from Gateshead, Fife, Manchester and Preston and they're just the latest - we have been inundated.

'We haven't come this far to only come this far - we want this to grow and for it to continue to make a real difference to the people here.'

Members of the Health of Harmony singing group: Irene Rennie, Fred Riley, Pauline Kennedy, Kath Roe, group leader Shirley Eracleous, Stephen Lloyd, Jacob Jones and Lyn RileyMembers of the Health of Harmony singing group: Irene Rennie, Fred Riley, Pauline Kennedy, Kath Roe, group leader Shirley Eracleous, Stephen Lloyd, Jacob Jones and Lyn Riley

Health and Harmony singers

The Health and Harmony singers meet at the Marine Hall every week and they are making a real difference to members' physical and mental health.

Pauline Kennedy is a full-time carer for her husband and has COPD. She has been singing with the group since it launched two years ago.

'In my head I should be on stage at La Scala, but this is good enough for now,' she laughed. 'Carers often don't look after themselves very well. Being here helps with my breathing and I have some fabulous friends. It doesn't matter how foul a mood you are in when you arrive, you always leave feeling happy.'

And Jacob Jones has found the group a real tonic. They suffer with anxiety and said: 'I love being here. These people have become like a family for me. There's a real mix of people and they're all so welcoming and inclusive.' Stephen Lloyd was diagnosed with cancer about four years ago and when he recovered from that he suffered a physical attack which he says had a profound affect on his mental health. The singing group was recommended and he joined a few months ago.

Paul Wright, John Hartley (Community Sports Development Officer for Fleetwood Town FC), Andrew McKessock and Stuart MacraePaul Wright, John Hartley (Community Sports Development Officer for Fleetwood Town FC), Andrew McKessock and Stuart Macrae

'I used to like karaoke but I'd become almost agoraphobic,' he said ' I didn't think it would be for me and I stood on my own for the first few weeks but now it's the highlight of my week.' And 85-year-old Marlene Coppack added: 'Nothing can interfere with my Tuesday afternoons now - that's Health and Harmony time. I have a chronic lung condition but my latest test revealed my lung capacity had improved by ten percent and tat's because I've been here singing.'

Men's Shed

One of the groups that has launched in Fleetwood is Men's Shed which gives men a place to meet, talk and share their experiences.

Paul Wright has been attending the sessions for about a year and has found it has given him a new lease of life.

'People often can't talk about problems with the families but talking in the group is different. We can be good listeners and it's good to share things,' he said.

The group has recently acquired its own building which members are busy renovating and Paul added: 'We're hoping to open seven days a week in the future. We've got some computers in there and a kitchen area and we're having some workshops and a little gym area put in as well. The building had been empty for some years so it's taking quite a bit of work to get it fit for use.

'It has given me a real sense of purpose. We've all had problems in our lives and I've found it rewarding to be there for other people. I've come to realise that in my home town a lot of people need that help and support and the hardest thing is often to open up and talk about it, but it really does make a difference.'Among the examples Dr Spencer offers of people who have benefited from the Healthier Fleetwood scheme, is the story of a man who had a congenital heart condition which led to him having a heart attack in his 30s. He was given medication which controlled the physical condition but his mental health suffered and he spent a along time out of work and lost any hope that things would improve.

He was signposted towards a gardening group and started there one morning a week. Within a few months he was turning up three times a week and then he managed to get a job.

Dr Spencer is animated and passionate as he speaks about how the movement has changed lives. And it's not only patients who have made changes, he too now does things differently.

'It's no good for us as doctors to just say "stop smoking" because people smoke for a reason,' he said. 'Smokers often have lung problems and singing is good for the lungs so we express a positive - 'joining the Health and Harmony singers could help you' - and they find all sorts of benefits: their breathing improves, and they also develop confidence, establish friendships and have fun. And then maybe they find that they aren't smoking as much.

'The outside perception of Fleetwood is often of a town that's down on its knees and disadvantaged. People sneer or take pity on Fleetwood but there is a sense of pride here and other towns are now looking at what we have done and how they can replicate things - in January we'll be talking to representatives from Gateshead, Fife, Manchester and Preston and they're just the latest - we have been inundated.

'We haven't come this far to only come this far - we want this to grow and for it to continue to make a real difference to the people here.'

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