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The aim of this commentary is to set out a priority research agenda which will make more systematic the evidence base about why investing in a range of ‘public health assets’ is important for population health. It will rehearse in brief some of the issues that have been raised over the past few years as experience has grown about how to apply the idea to public health practice. The commentary will also argue for better conceptualisation (in part developed through research) in order that the approach can become a credible contributor to existing tools and techniques already available to the public health workforce.
Public health policy and practice increasingly make use of the term ‘health assets’ (the shift from problems and needs to strength and capabilities) in their deliberations about the best ways to improve health and well-being. This has been accompanied by a rise in discussion and debate in the peer-reviewed literature. For example, using the specific term ‘health assets’, a search of PubMed found few papers appearing up until the 1980s, in contrast to 184 papers found in 2013. The search results confirm that the origins of the notion ‘glass half full’ stem from human development sciences, later taken up by clinical sciences including psychology, nursing1 and psychiatry. Most recently (in the past decade), public health has shown a renewed interest in its potential application to solutions for promoting health and reducing health inequalities. Given this history, the narrative in the majority of papers displays an individual level rather than a population-level focus. That is to say, much of the discussion (in mainstream policy and practice, at least) has been about how the ideas can be translated into clinical practice rather than public health action. That said, there are signs in some countries that this is now …