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The Policy Ask with Habib Naqvi: “Policymakers should acknowledge that communities know better”

The chief executive of the NHS Race and Health Observatory on tackling injustice, and why we need better representation in medical research.

By Spotlight

Habib Naqvi is the chief executive of the NHS Race and Health Observatory, which works to identify and tackle ethnic inequalities in health. He has been working in healthcare for 25 years and in that time has directed the development and implementation of national health equity programmes for the NHS. He is an honorary visiting professor of health equity at the Queen’s Institute for Medicine, University of Bolton, and was appointed an MBE in 2019 for services to equality and diversity in the NHS.

How do you start your working day?

Coffee and toast (I’m not much of a breakfast person). I then review news headlines and any urgent media and public affairs requests that have come in overnight, and check in with colleagues.

What has been your career high?

Becoming the first chief executive of the NHS Race and Health Observatory. Tackling injustice is a passion, and leading the observatory enables me to drive change by removing the excuses on tackling inequalities that have persisted for decades.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Working in health inequalities and undertaking my doctorate research on cardiovascular disease while my dad was suffering from the condition was one of the most challenging moments of my career. This challenge has further spurred me on to tackle inequalities in healthcare outcomes.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

To always stay focused on doing the right thing – ensuring your moral compass is pointing in the right direction. I would remind myself to be brave and patient, and that although change takes time, perseverance does not go unrewarded.

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Which political figure inspires you?

Nelson Mandela embodied passion and perseverance; he never gave up the fight for justice and freedom. There are lessons for us all on how we can adapt our strategies in ways that do not move us away from being faithful to the cause.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

Investing in the potential of new technology to improve healthcare. Genomics and precision medicine offer a fantastic opportunity to deliver targeted care in a way that reduces harm. However, it’s vital that interventions are equitable – our genetic biobanks should be representative of our ethnically diverse population, and genomic medicine must be made available to all.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?

The way the NHS, and other public bodies, collect ethnicity data is outdated. In places, this data collection is based on guidance and standards that are more than 20 years old. With the NHS giving accountability to local healthcare systems, it’s essential that they’re making decisions based on accurate data.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

If the government follows through with its Mental Health Bill, it would be a huge moment in the history of mental health care in this country. The current Mental Health Act is over 40 years old, and we know of the disproportionate detention and poorer experiences of black and minority ethnic people. Reforming the Act is an essential step towards delivering mental health equity.

What international government policy could the UK learn from?

It’s important to me that community voice is meaningfully embedded into the workings of government. I would like to see the government look towards more experimental forms of community participation – such as participatory budgeting and citizen’s assemblies – which have been effective in Portugal, Spain, Japan and New Zealand. An important part of leading is acknowledging that communities often know better about what they need than policymakers.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

The UK rightly prides itself as a world leader in healthcare research, but currently there is no consistent requirement that research cohorts be representative of the populations that the medical advances are designed to serve. You end up with medications and medical devices that are designed to help some people and not others. I would urge for mandating representation in publicly funded research.

This article first appeared in a Spotlight print report on Healthcare, published on 17 May 2024. Read it in full here.

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