Researching the health inequities faced by Gypsy, Roma, Traveller communities

Vanessa Heaslip

Dr Vanessa Heaslip was an Associate Professor and Deputy Head of Department for Nursing Science until September 2022. During her time at BU she focussed on promoting health equity for socially-excluded groups, and ensuring their voices are heard more widely – not least among policymakers.

“My grandmother-in law, Alice, was from the Showman’s community, a Romany Gypsy, and needed hospital care towards the end of her life. She had a difficult experience in hospital, finding a lack of understanding from healthcare staff about her cultural beliefs and background. As a nurse, this experience inspired me to delve into researching the health inequities faced by Gypsy, Roma, Traveller communities.

“Compared to individuals in the settled community, these communities have poorer health outcomes, yet there’s a real lack of targeted initiatives, or cultural sensitivity, to address this. In fact, ‘Gypsy, Roma, Traveller’ is often not even an option on many healthcare forms, so we don’t even have the data we need to measure the extent of the health challenges we know are out there. This needs to change, so I’m getting involved at the policy level to help make it happen.

Stats make you credible – but stories make you memorable

“The Policy & Public Affairs Team at BU knew I wanted to take the step towards policy influencing so they kept an eye out for me. They told me about a Government cross-departmental forum looking for input. The forum was set up for Government to get a handle on the challenges posed by Covid-19 for Gypsy, Roma, Traveller communities. I presented to sixteen staff from departments including Health and Social Care, the Cabinet Office and the Office for National Statistics (ONS). I actually began my presentation talking about ‘Alice, my husband’s nan’ and sharing a photo of her because I wanted the officials to understand the human story behind the work I do – that Alice, as part of the Romany Gypsy community, deserved healthcare that took into account her cultural beliefs and needs, just like any other social group.

At the heart of evidence-based policymaking

“I think using Alice’s story brought my presentation to life and made it much more likely to be remembered. In fact, after the meeting I was invited by the ONS’ Centre for Equalities & Inclusion to join their steering group and then was appointed as a specialist adviser on their research project with members of these communities. I led training for the Gypsy, Roma, Travellers peer researchers as well as support them in their analysis. It’s fantastic to be at the heart of the evidence which informs policy and we have recommendations for Government due to be published soon.

Using my voice to amplify others’

“I want to carry on using my voice as an advocate for Gypsy, Roma, Traveller communities and other marginalised groups. For me, a big part of that is continuing the policy influencing work. In my opinion, there’s no point doing great research unless you take the next step – communicating with those who have the power to make people’s lives better. I think most of our elected representatives know very little about these communities, and probably hold the same misperceptions as the rest of society. I want to provide a counter discourse, an alternative perspective, to help tackle the stigma. Only by having open and honest conversations with policy-makers can we work together to achieve positive change. So, I will continue to find ways to contribute and maybe change minds too - thankfully, the Policy & Public Affairs Team at BU won’t let an opportunity go by!”