Mair Stephens is Chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes-Wales.

This article was originally published on the Bevan Commission website.

Last week the Women’s Institute (WI) celebrated 100 years of campaigning.  Since its inception in 1915, health and wellbeing has been at the heart of the WI.  In 1964, our members were calling for a ban on smoking in public spaces and in 1986 we became one of the first organisations to talk about AIDS, when many were silent, using our network of local organisations to educate the public and get people talking about the issue.  The WI has been involved in health awareness campaigns such as lobbying the government in 1975 to set up breast cancer screening clinics and in 1964 calling on the NHS to provide cervical cancer screening.

In 2015, to mark the centenary of the WI, we launched The WI at 100 report which examined the views of over 5,000 WI members across Wales and England on some of the key challenges facing women and their families today. Looking at our health service, members celebrated the remarkable achievements of the NHS yet many, in particular carers, expressed concern that health and social care services will not be able to meet their needs as they age.  At our Public Affairs Conference, earlier this month, WI members reflected on the WI resolutions which they felt had impacted the greatest on society. I was particularly struck by the passion shown by members towards our health-related mandates as the key campaigns that they felt had made a difference.

Improving health and wellbeing is currently a key priority for the WI and is embedded within a number of our current campaigns from our Link Together campaign to alleviate loneliness to our new campaign Make Time for Mental Health which is calling for parity between mental health and physical health and for better support for mental illness.

On the 70th anniversary of the NHS and the 100th anniversary of WI campaigning, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes-Wales is launching a project, Our Health in Our Hands, in partnership with the Bevan Commission, to engage WI members in helping to make prudent healthcare a reality so that the NHS is fit for the future.

On a regular basis we hear about the increasing pressures and expectations on the NHS.  Obesity rates continue to rise, our dependency on medical solutions is high, we have a growing ageing population and we are seeing an increased prevalence of complex and long-term conditions.  The number of people over 65 is predicted to increase to nearly 870,000 by 2036. There are an estimated 43,477 people living with dementia in Wales with dementia patient numbers forecasted to rise by 40% within 12 years.

We should all feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for the NHS. Good health and care is everyone’s responsibility. As individuals we all have a part to play in considering our actions to help reduce the increasing pressures on our NHS, making sure that services are fit for purpose and more prudent, and that they are used wisely. 

The Our Health in Our Hands project will inspire the strong network of 16,000 WI members in Wales to help work towards achieving a more prudent social model which recognises the shared responsibility of society starting with the individual.  During the coming months we will be encouraging our members to start a conversation with their family, friends and community members about the importance of taking care of themselves and making prudent health and care decisions.

What can we all personally do differently in the 70th year of NHS to sustain health and care in Wales? Are we exercising regularly? How are we looking after our mental health?  What are our alternatives to seeing our GP?  Do we need medication or is there an alternative?  These are some of the questions that we will be supporting our members to discuss.

Evidence has shown that many long-term conditions can be prevented by simple lifestyle changes.  I was recently inspired by a WI member from Glamorgan Federation of WIs who shared with me her inspirational story about how she had improved her health and wellbeing by taking 2 simple actions – walking for an hour each day and eating a balanced diet.  The member told me that these small steps had transformed her life; she felt more confident, had more energy and had lost weight.  This example illustrates clearly how individuals can take action to improve their health and wellbeing and, through Our Health in Our Hands, we look forward to gathering and sharing more inspirational case studies.

It is evident that WI members are passionate about the NHS and I am confident that our members will get inspired to play their part in helping create a sustainable NHS for our future generations.

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

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