What do the public currently think about health?

Surveys give some insight into current public attitudes to health. NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey is an annual survey of around 3,000 (population-representative) people on a range of social issues. In 2017, the Health Foundation sponsored a set of questions in the survey to understand public attitudes to the social determinants of health and responsibility for health.

The responses to these questions show there is a strong connection in people’s minds between health and health care, and a strong belief in the impact of individual behaviours (‘lifestyle factors’) on health (see Figure 1). Almost three-quarters (73%) thought access to free health care has a very large impact on health, and almost three-fifths (59%) thought individual behaviours have a very large impact on health.

By contrast, other determinants – such as education, employment, social support and the area in which someone lives – were rated as considerably less important by the public in terms of their impact on health.

Figure 1: Proportion of people who think that different determinants have a ‘very large’ or ‘quite large’ impact on people’s health

Source: British Social Attitudes survey 2017 (n=2,942).

Only 1% of respondents thought the government was entirely responsible for people’s health, while almost a third (30%) thought individuals were entirely responsible for their own health (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Public attitudes on the extent to which the individual or the government is responsible for a person’s health

Source: British Social Attitudes survey 2017 (n=2,942).

These findings point to a prevailing view that health care and individuals’ choices are the primary drivers of health. However, survey findings of this kind are limited in how far they can explain public understanding of complex issues. Although these results make clear that health care and individual behaviour dominate public thinking, they do not explain why. This makes it difficult to know how to shift the public’s attention toward, and change public thinking on, societal factors. In addition, the results are strongly influenced by the wording and ordering of questions, and people may hold multiple, conflicting views on health, which survey methodologies such as those used in the British Social Attitudes survey cannot uncover. The research conducted by FrameWorks explores these nuances.

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