01.09.2013 “spectra” is like a restaurant menu – it has something for everyone.

Six questions for Professor Thomas Zeltner. As Director of Switzerland's Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) from 1991 to 2009, Thomas Zeltner helped shape the Swiss healthcare system and international health policy for many years. Today, he is President of the Science et Cité Foundation, which promotes dialogue between the sciences and the people of Switzerland, and he is a professor at the University of Berne and Harvard University as well as an advisor to numerous organisations and governments.

Pictures “spectra” is like a restaurant menu – it has something for everyone.


Spectra was being published throughout almost your entire term of office as FOPH Director. What comes to mind when you think of this "newsletter for Prevention and Health Promotion"?

Firstly, spectra has enabled us to express our views clearly and concisely on controversial topics and helped us position ourselves. Secondly, it has enabled us to raise awareness of topics that would otherwise have been somewhat overshadowed by other issues. It gave us a chance to say: "Look at this, it's important" – hence the title "spectra", which covers the entire range of colours and possibilities.

The mass media are very quick to respond when something sensational or topical occurs, but they tend to narrow it down to succinct details. The job of spectra is more to provide sound background information. Does it come up to scratch in this respect?

Yes, in fact very much so. Spectra has a good and highly distinctive profile. It combines the task you've just referred to with a high level of reader-friendliness. Spectra is a bit like a restaurant menu – it has something for everyone. It uses a wide range of formats, making it a pleasure to read. But you don't have to read it from beginning to end – it can be laid aside for a while. It's a classic magazine format. This sets it apart from the daily media, which are similarly structured, and from scientific journals, which also provide background information but, as reading material, are almost too dry. I think the combination is very successful.

Do you think that we're reaching our target public and that spectra is being read and heeded?

I for one read it and I've heard from others that they enjoy reading it. In my opinion, the key target group would be people whose work is concerned with the concept of "health in all policies", i.e. who are active in other areas of society and politics. They need to be constantly reminded of how important their activities are for health. The topics that spectra addresses make it clear that lifestyles and living conditions play a much more crucial role than curative approaches. It's like with children of the clergy – they don't need to have the Bible explained to them. Likewise, there isn't such an urgent need for health professionals to read spectra.

In the mid-1990s, AIDS and drug abuse were the burning topics, high up on the list of people's concerns. This is no longer the case today. Looking back after all this time, what have been the major problems of the last twenty years?

The major crises you mention were followed by others such as pandemics and new infections. They brought with them the realisation that health issues, economic problems and prosperity were very closely interconnected. The defining experience in my term of office was SARS and the sudden realisation of how vulnerable the world was. SARS brought the great Basel World international clock, watch and jewellery fair almost to the verge of ruin. Then there were the conflicts between the interests of health and business in relation to efforts to reduce smoking. All this engendered the really big topics centred on chronic, non-communicable diseases and their prevention.

The 100th issue of spectra is focusing on lifestyle. Which changes in lifestyle have most obviously had an impact on health in the last few decades?

You're probably expecting me to mention diet, physical activity and overweight. These really are important – and also unresolved – topics. They are important for us because we in the public health sector still don't know how to tackle them to sustainable effect. But there is a second topic that is coming increasingly to the fore. It's about demographics, about staying healthy into advanced old age. Because of Switzerland's demographic development, this topic deserves much more attention. Hence, social health does too – and therefore not just mental health. Measures to prevent social isolation are among the most important in terms of keeping people healthy. Isolation is an inhumane way of life. It's becoming increasingly obvious that steps to avoid isolation later in life need to be taken at as early an age as 50. I also completely underestimated the problem. For a start, we have to be able to walk, get out of the house and cultivate contact with other people, and we have to be able to hear and understand others. I regard this as one of the really big issues of both the present time and the future.

Are you someone who will always enjoy the feel of paper in your hand or do you also like to read things on a tablet computer?

Those who know me are aware of my liking for lying in the bathtub and reading. A tablet's not really suitable for that sort of thing. I like to have a paper in my hands and the option of putting it down somewhere and picking it up again later. However, I would say that spectra has to be available online and on tablets. After all, today's reading habits have changed; we also want to be able to read on the move. My wish for spectra is that, in addition to one-way communication, it will succeed in evolving into more dialogue-based forms. I'm quite sure it will achieve this by the time its 200th issue comes around.

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