Health Champions – physical health in people with serious mental illnesses

Learn how our Integrating our Mental and Physical Healthcare Services (IMPHS) project evaluates the role of physical health support in patients with serious mental illness to improve patient outcomes.

Health ChampionsFor people living with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, their physical health can often be neglected because their care tends to be focused on their mental health. The Health Champions study, a project led by IMPHS, will explore whether supporting the physical health of patients with serious mental illnesses will improve their physical health.

There is evidence to suggest how physical health can be neglected for those living with serious mental illnesses. For example, according to The Lancet Psychiatry Commission: a blueprint for protecting physical health in people with mental illness, published by the Lancet Psychiatry:

  • Antipsychotics, a type of psychiatric medication to treat psychosis, remains the best evidence-based treatments for psychotic disorders and reduce mortality rates compared with no treatment. However, antipsychotics have detrimental effects on many aspects of physical health.
  • Mental illnesses are associated with an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. These are 1.4–2 times higher in people with mental illnesses than in the general population.
  • The development of integrated care models to manage the coexistence of two or more chronic mental and physical diseases, is an important step forwards, particularly in low-income and middle-income settings where health inequalities for people with mental illness are greatest.

At King’s Health Partners, integrating mental and physical healthcare models is vital for the holistic care of our patients. Our Mind & Body programme, with funding from Maudsley Charity, hosts IMPHS, a three-year project focused on closing the mortality gap for people accessing South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust services, by improving the physical healthcare on offer to them. An example of their work is the Health Champions study.

The Health Champions study is unique. Having explored other studies evaluating the value of supporting the physical health of patients with serious mental illness, very few focus on the invaluable role of volunteers.

The study will be a Randomised Controlled Trial involving two groups. Patients in group one will be offered information on improving their physical health. Patients in the second group will be individually matched with a Health Champion volunteer. The volunteer will support them to set patient-led physical health goals which they will work towards together over nine months. Prior to the study, Health Champions will take part in training focused on developing their coaching, goal setting and physical health navigation skills.

A patient involved in the Health Champions study could be someone prescribed antipsychotic medication, who also has diabetes and would like to improve their physical health by reducing their weight. Alongside any usual support the patient would receive from their health professional at the Trust, a Health Champion would support their patient in setting realistic goals for weight loss; which might also include finding fun local physical activity groups, getting diet support, or supporting them going to the gym.

The study will measure patient health outcomes at three points: before it begins, after receiving support from the Health Champion for nine months or information on improving physical health, and then six months after the study has ended. The health outcomes measured will relate to the patients’ physical health related quality of life, how in control they feel of their physical health, dealing with both physical and mental health conditions, mental health-related quality of life and loneliness.

Isobel Mdudu, Volunteer Services Manager at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust has been integral to introducing Health Champions in mental health settings. She initially explored the idea approximately six years ago and was interested when our Mind & Body lead approached her to research this as part of the IMPHS study. Speaking about the Health Champions project launching, Isobel said:

I’m so pleased the Health Champions study has begun. Having trained as a nutritionist, I have a background in physical health, and recognise the value of looking after everyone’s mental and physical health through exercise, good nutrition and healthy lifestyles.
Not only will the study be an interesting opportunity to measure patient health outcomes, it’s also a great chance to support our terrific volunteers. Giving them training, support and guidance throughout the nine-month period will be great for their personal and professional development.

The study would not have been possible without the diverse range of volunteers being recruited to the study, including people who were previously patients, NHS staff, retired NHS staff and students studying to work in the mental and physical health medical professions. 

A special thanks to our IMPHS colleagues for making the Health Champions study possible: Isobel Mdudu, Dr Julie Williams, Post-Doctoral Research Worker, King’s College London, Ubong Akpan, Healthcare Specialist at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, Elliann Fairbairn, Project Manager, King’s Health Partners and Raymond McGrath, Lead Nurse, King’s Health Partners.

Liked this article? Read more about how our Mind & Body team are supporting the physical health of patients in mental health wards.

We are committed to joining up mental and physical healthcare, training and research to improve health outcomes for our patients and service users. Find out more about the important work we are doing.