Prevention Science

What is “Prevention Science”?

The field of prevention science represents a multi-disciplinary endeavour to consider aetiology, epidemiology, intervention design, effectiveness and implementation for the prevention of a variety of health and social problems. These include, but are not limited to, substance misuse, sexual health and teenage pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, violence, accidents, suicide, mental illness, delinquency, obesity, diet/nutrition, exercise, and chronic illness. A common characteristic is the importance of behaviour as a determinant of ill-health and health inequality. Behavioural risk factors are important causes of Non-Communicable Disease (NCD).

Prevention Science covers the systematic study of interventions to reduce the incidence of maladaptive behaviours, and to promote adaptive behaviours, in populations.  This requires expertise in a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches for the purpose of conducting research within the social and societal systems of the family, health and education, workplace, community, social welfare, environmental planning, urban design and fiscal policy.

Is it important? Why is it needed?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) NCDs are the leading causes of death in all regions except Africa, but current projections indicate that by 2020 the largest increases in NCD deaths will occur in Africa. NCDs already disproportionately affect low- and middle-income countries where nearly 80% of NCD deaths – 29 million – occur. Other key facts from WHO are that:

  • NCDs kill more than 36 million people each year.
  • More than nine million of all deaths attributed to NCDs occur before the age of 60.
  • Cardiovascular diseases account for most NCD deaths, or 17.3 million people annually, followed by cancers (7.6 million), respiratory diseases (4.2 million), and diabetes (1.3 million).
  • These four groups of diseases account for around 80% of all NCD deaths.
  • They share four preventable behavioural risk factors: tobacco use, physical inactivity, the harmful use of alcohol and unhealthy diets.

In Europe, the unequal distribution of health outcomes across the EU poses a challenge to the EU’s fundamental objective of solidarity and cohesion. Alarmingly, 97% of health spending across Europe goes on treatment as compared to only 3% on prevention. Whilst Prevention Science is a relatively new field of study, it is one which is growing in importance across the European Union. The growing number of fiscal, environmental and social pressures facing the EU is forcing policy makers to search for more effective and efficient ways of dealing with particular societal problems and issues. A focus on Prevention Science will provide added value within Europe.

Who is doing “Prevention Science”?

It is a new and growing multidisciplinary scientific field, with strong coverage in the United States, including a scientific society, methodology groups and networks, and a growing impact scientific journal. Recent initiatives in the UK and Europe are seeking to emulate this strong coverage across the European Community, with the development of the European Society for Prevention Research (EUSPR) and the SPAN initiative.

The concept for the SPAN initiative was incubated within the membership of the European Society for Prevention Research (EUSPR), a cross-disciplinary not-for-profit membership organisation comprising European scientists and researchers, policy makers and practitioners, methodology specialists, academics, career development advisers and prevention implementation specialists. In a meeting of the EUSPR held in Amsterdam in 2010 three workshops were held. These workshops focused on research and evaluation methodology; dissemination; and education and training, for prevention science in Europe.

A key conclusion from the workshops was that further academic development was needed in Europe, to develop academic consensus across European countries for research methods, to develop and promote extensive dissemination channels in European countries, surrounding regions and further afield, and to map education and training in prevention science throughout Europe as a step toward developing consistent prevention science curricula and standards.

In particular, the Training and Education Group, which brought together fourteen prevention researchers, practitioners and policy makers from Sweden, the United States, Austria, Italy, Belgium, Croatia, the United Kingdom and the Middle East, identified a particular need to;

  • Develop a comprehensive education and training portfolio for prevention theory, research and practice, which would clearly define the scope of prevention research and practice;
  • Undertake a mapping exercise to identify and categorise existing provision;
  • Develop a model of prevention science education and training that creates new, agreed education and training curricula (with both core and additional elements) at Masters and PhD level;
  • Try and work to embed prevention education and training in already established scientific disciplines and professional groups;
  • Establish a more effective training and education network to take forward the prevention education and training agenda.