Investigating health promotion and health interventions

Meet Helle Terkildsen Maindal

“We need to expand our horizons! With today’s global burden of non-communicable diseases, it is important to look beyond a medical paradigm and focus on public health and social structures, even before we get any diseases.”

How do we ensure that everyone has equal access to health and preventive services? And how can we best support those who find it difficult to take good decisions about their own health to navigate health information, healthy environments and the health services? These are some of the questions Professor Helle Terkildsen Maindal hopes to answer via her research.

We can and must prevent major non-communicable diseases

The major non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and mental disorders are present in all age groups, and the major risk factors can be targeted already early in life. According to Helle Terkildsen Maindal, priority interventions therefore include both population, systems, group and individual level activities.

“Our research group investigates health promotion and health interventions. We focus on early prevention of inactivity, overweight and diabetes before, during and after pregnancy. The period around pregnancy is a so-called life transition, where health promotion is particularly important,” she says.

One of the core projects that Helle Terkildsen Maindal is most proud of is also one of the largest: The purpose of the Face-IT Project is to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and increase quality of life for families in which the mother has had gestational diabetes. Here, the community health visitors provide social and digital support to the new families targeting exercise, healthy eating and breastfeeding, and help the family’s social dynamics.

Helle Terkildsen Maindal, who besides her professorship is chair of Dansk Selskab for Folkesundhed  (the Danish Society for Public Health), has worked with health promotion and social inequality in health since 2002. She is particularly fascinated by the interdisciplinarity of the research area, and is motivated by its great potential.

“My dream is that my research will contribute to ensuring that public health, and health promotion in particular, becomes an even more recognised research area, and that the type of evidence we produce will have a greater impact. There is still a need for new methods to be created and acknowledged, and this will require more funding for early health promotion and the prevention of chronic diseases,” says Helle Terkildsen Maindal.

The possibilities of living a healthy life are unequally distributed

According to Helle Terkildsen Maindal, the concepts of ‘empowerment and health literacy’ are crucial to ensuring that, as individuals, we are able to make good decisions about our health and obtain access to and outcome from health information and services.

“In a health promotion paradigm, focus is on well-being and the ability to make informed decisions, and support to make the easy choices into the healthy choices. Therefore, in our research on health promotion, we focus both on targeted interventions and on structural changes in which we improve the capacities and possibilities for health, e.g. in schools or in the local community.”

At the moment, the group investigates the social inequality associated with the use of antenatal care, particularly among pregnant women with diabetes. In addition, Helle Terkildsen Maindal’s group is playing a central role in the development of a large programme aimed at using a system thinking approach to understand drivers for inactivity and to prevent inactivity among children. This project involves not only researchers, but also a number of organisations and local stakeholders.

Helle Terkildsen Maindal was born in 1963 and trained as a nurse. She was one of Denmark’s first professors in health promotion, when she was appointed in 2017. In 2021, she was awarded the JCD Prize for her work as a PhD supervisor and role model, particularly for young women with research ambitions.