Skip to content

Who are the Citizen Champions for Health?

April 28, 2013

In a still small but growing section of the health world we are increasingly familiar with the idea of ‘community health champions’. As Altogether Better say on their website

‘Community Health champions are people who, with training and support, voluntarily bring their ability to relate to people and their own life experience to transform health and well-being in their communities. Within their families, communities and workplaces they empower and motivate people to get involved in healthy social activities, create groups to meet local needs and sign post people to relevant support and services.’

One of the things that has concerned me about ‘Health Champions’ is that we can achieve wellbeing outcomes through other forms of activism that are equally valid. These are some of the characteristics that I would use to describe what champions do:


The point is that that “Champions” are not exclusive to the Health System. We would be mistaken in thinking that the only form of champion that can help us improve health and wellbeing are those who have got “health” in their title. We know that the social determinants of health have a much greater impact on our health than health and social care services. So it is in our interest to recognise, encourage and validate other sectors that are also promoting active and strong citizenship through champion models.

Here are two important examples:

Community Learning Champions

Some of the key players supporting Community Learning Champions are the Workers Education Association and National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE) and the trade union movement through UnionLearn.

“Community Learning Champions are people who become active in their community by promoting the value of learning to others. They may be promoting learning with their friends, neighbours, relatives or workmates, but they could also be meeting people they meet meet at the school gates, at the local shops, or in groups or clubs. Champions speak from personal exerience and act as role models for learning. (from NIACE website)”

Legal capability for everyday life

This is Law for Life’s legal capability project which sets out to equip people to deal with law-related issues they are likely to encounter in the course of their lives. I came across it when I visited the excellent Community Links in Newham who are piloting it.

The project is run over six sessions and includes:

  • Making sense of the law
  • Getting help and finding out about the law
  • Dealing with problems including practical skills
  • Broader issues of influencing change and community engagement

Topics include Housing, Employment, Discrimination and Welfare Benefits.

What does this mean for local public health?

It is not sufficient for us to focus on health champions. Of course they have a tremendous contribution to make to democratising and improving local health services and we must continue to promote them.

However, if we are to make a real difference to the social determinants of health – we also have to get out of our silo (public health is meant to be cross sectoral after all!) and support work in other sectors that opens up access to similarly complex systems and two of the most important must be education and that concerned with access to justice.

This means that Health and Wellbeing Boards need to consider how to take a system level view of how citizens are supported in developing and using their experience and knowledge of key systems – health, education, legal – to ensure that people get access to the support they need, can take more control of their own lives and help shape local services to better reflect their priorities.

What do you think?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2013 11:33


    I have been a ‘citizen’ champion and activist for heath in England’s 10th most deprived area for over 15 years, having raised and invested £millions in regenerating green infrastructure and health promoting programmes in the third sector. But I am now leaving and taking my skills overseas as a volunteer. Why? Because I cannot bear to see what is happening to the NHS, other public services, and the third sector, under the guise of ‘austerity’ and in the case of the NHS, it’s ‘liberation’. I know that good work, including that of myself and my colleagues, is being systemically smashed and burned by the policies of the current administration.

    How can you offer hope and help to people if the very infrastructures that have been built up over the last two decades to do just that are being torn asunder and discarded? How can you help people to navigate systems that are set up to be judge, jury and executioner, and which have been outsourced to the private sector, who run them on non evidence based ideologies such as the bio/psychosocial model?

    How can you strengthen community voice when the organisations and infrastructures that have helped to give them that voice are being systematically destroyed? What exactly are the (positive) experiences we are supposed to be validating when, for example, dealing with a person who can no longer access your service because they have lost their DLA and have been ruled fit for work by ATOS, and who are now confined to the house, or the mother at the food bank who does not have enough money for her gas key so she can’t cook the food she has been given? What do you tell the disabled person, or any other person, who no longer has access to legal aid to challenge the decisions made against them?

    Community champions, bless them, are helpless and powerless when set against these social determinants of health, which are set to undo many of the gains of the last two decades, as inequality widens and abject poverty grows to almost Victorian levels.

    I hope that when my volunteering time is up, that I can return to a UK that has done the decent thing and kicked out this current LibCon bunch of hooray Henrys and brought in an administration that has the b*lls to undo some at least of the dreadful damage being done to public and voluntary sector services that many of my colleagues have spent a lifetime building up.

    Until then, I’m out of here.



  2. April 30, 2013 13:28

    Mark, what you write is very true. Sometime health advocates become so obsessed with the “advocacy” part that they forget the community side of it. and personal and community wellbeing really require joint efforts. i think the challenge is on the language we use, which often reflects the discipline & sector silos we work and operate in. so community champions of any type have a key role in making complex systems accessible, and this means also using language understood across silos


  1. Guest Blog: Who are the Citizen Champions for Health? Asks Mark Gamsu | People's Health Movement UK

Leave a Reply