More than 20 years in research has convinced Professor Anna Peeters of the fundamental role collaboration plays in achieving real and lasting change in population health.
Delivering health and wellbeing for all
Finding ways to make the world a better place was part of her family’s ethos as Prof. Peeters grew up. Determination to do just that still drives her work in improving health equity and tackling the global obesity epidemic by building the healthiness of our food systems.
Having started out with a focus on human genetics and a PhD in infectious diseases that identified a new transcription pathway in HIV, Prof. Peeters began to realise she wanted to use her skills in testing ideas and solving problems to benefit population health instead.
‘I thought I’d like to think about things during my work that I like to think about during my day, and I’m really interested in what we can do to help everybody have better health and wellbeing. I wanted to spend my time thinking about people and societies rather than microbes and test-tubes,’ she says.
Building networks for change
After receiving a ‘crash course’ in epidemiology, biostatistics and chronic disease policy as she learnt how to gather hard evidence for policy to benefit population health, Prof. Peeters took on a research post at Erasmus University Medical Centre in the Netherlands before returning to Australia and Monash University as VicHealth Fellow. She was Head of Obesity and Population Health at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute before joining Deakin in 2015 as Professor of Equity and Epidemiology in Public Health. She was Associate Director of Deakin’s Global Obesity Centre before her appointment as inaugural Director of Deakin’s Institute for Health Transformation in 2018.
‘I made the move to Deakin because I was attracted to the University’s idea of supporting excellent research that makes a difference to the communities we serve,’ Prof. Peeters says. ‘Deakin had a strong reputation in delivering impact and working to change systems to improve health and wellbeing.’
Driving the systemic change required to achieve health equity and better health outcomes for everyone is the focus of all Prof. Peeters work and she has built a formidable national and international network of collaborators throughout her career. She leads the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Food Retail Environments for Health (RE-FRESH), the world's first international centre for healthy food retail research and practice, and was instrumental in launching the Institute for Health Transformation’s Nourish Network, a multi-sector collective working to develop innovative food retail practices for better social and environmental outcomes. In her role as Principal Research Translation Investigator at Western Alliance, she leads the $9M MRFF ‘DELIVER’ project aiming to improve health outcomes for older Australians in regional, rural and remote areas.
Rethinking our health systems
‘I love working with others to come up with new approaches to solving thorny problems,’ Prof. Peeters says. ‘A number of our current systems, from the food system through the aged care system to the mental health system, are not working effectively, efficiently or equitably. They have grown up over the past century in a piecemeal fashion, aiming to deliver specific outcomes, with little understanding of how they no longer as a whole benefit population health and wellbeing.
Redesigning these systems needs a lot of different perspectives working together to identify, test, adapt and track improvements.
‘My research uniquely brings a number of unusual suspects together to focus on the common goals of health and wellbeing for all. Through doing this, we have identified new ways of sustainably providing healthier food options, delivering better care to Australians in regional areas, and putting the citizen at the centre of our decision making. Taking a collaborative approach to our most complex health challenges will deliver real and lasting impact for all Australians.’
Deakin's Institute for Health Transformation
At the Institute for Health Transformation, we address today’s most complex and compelling health challenges through excellence in collaborative research that transforms how we design and deliver prevention and care
The Institute for Health Transformation
The Institute for Health Transformation addresses the 21st century’s most complex and compelling health challenges through excellence in collaborative research that transforms the design and delivery of care. It aims to enhance health and wellbeing for all by activating healthy populations and communities, delivering innovation in health service delivery and design, empowering consumers as advocates for health system change and driving equity and value in health and care.
We sat down with Professor Anna Peeters to find out more about the Institute for Health Transformation and its work.
About the Institute for Health Transformation
What is the Institute for Heath Transformation and what inspired you to become its Director?
Our work enhances health and wellbeing for all by creating transformational change in how we design and deliver prevention and care across the broad spectrum of health, disability, ageing and end of life care. Underpinning all we do is our commitment to improving equity and access to health by working with our partners to achieve real impact.
We have more than 200 multidisciplinary researchers working across four domains: obesity prevention, health economics, determinants of health, and quality and patient safety. Our research focuses on fixing the drivers of our health systems that make it hard for all of us to be healthy –like the social and commercial determinants of health, a focus on individual responsibility when the system makes it impossible for everyone to make good choices, and how care is designed and delivered.
Solving complex challenges is most likely to be achieved through combining multiple perspectives and that’s the opportunity that most energises me as Director.
What do you enjoy about being the Director and how do you balance that task with your own research?
As Director, I have the privilege of looking to join the dots: which emerging research leader might bring a new perspective to a current research project; would the current project being developed with one of our longstanding partners benefit from adding in different methods and approaches from another Domain in the Institute; what are the common themes emerging from our projects, as this often speaks to how we might address a truly complex challenge together with multiple partners.
Time management in general, doing meaningful tasks and having time to develop my research remains a constant challenge. My team is crucial in being able to take on key activities to keep the work growing and going.
What distinguishes the Institute for Health Transformation from other research institutes in this field?
Our research focuses on finding ways to make lasting, systemic change in the way prevention and health care is designed and delivered, so that everyone, no matter their circumstances, has equity in access and outcomes. We tackle complex health challenges by converging diverse perspectives and disciplines and embed the principles of participatory design and co-creation to ensure our research aligns to the needs of partners and consumers and delivers results that are relevant both to our local partners and the global context.
How does the Institute contribute to Deakin's strategic priorities? What are your priorities for the Institute?
Our unique partnerships and capacity to tackle many of Australia and the world’s current priority health challenges allows our work to contribute to all of Deakin’s five Impact Themes to varying extents.
We most closely align with the Impact Theme of improving health and wellbeing, with its focus on developing and delivering solutions that improve prevention and health care for our communities, developing sustainable models of health care delivery and prevention, and delivering whole-of-population prevention and health care outcomes that reduce health disparities. However, we also have large research programs around the use of digital health (creating smarter technologies), improving health equity (building safe and secure communities) and health sustainability (enabling a sustainable world).
In addition to our external partners, these strategic priorities involve active collaborations with many of Deakin’s other research Institutes including the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), the Institute for Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Translation (IMPACT), the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), the Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM), the Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (IISRI) and the Applied Artificial Intelligence Institute (A2I2).
The Institute for Health Transformation projects
What are some of the major projects the Institute is working on?
Our research is often multidisciplinary and far-reaching. We were recently awarded MRFF funding to improve the mental health of people living with diabetes and cardiovascular disease via a telehealth program called LISTEN, an evidence-based intervention focussed on self-help and skills development.
One of our researchers, Dr Louisa Smith, was awarded funding from the Dementia Australia Research Foundation to co-design tools and resources that will better support community visitors to connect with socially isolated LGBT+ people with dementia
Our I-HEART project is working to improve heart failure survival and recovery in regional communities in Australia. The project oversees a number of initiatives to improve patient care, including hosting workshops with GPs and regional services, and linking patients to specialist care via telehealth.
We’re also a key partner in the VicHealth Local Government Partnership, which sees VicHealth partner with local councils throughout Victoria to create communities where young people may grow up active, connected and healthy. Through the partnership, we support the partners to build their systems thinking capacity and practices.
Higher Degree by Research
What disciplines are you looking for in your HDR students and how can prospective students engage with the Institute for Health Transformation?
We’re looking for HDR students from any health-related disciplines, economics and digital technologies. Potential HDR students can visit our website to see the breadth and depth of the work we do and then email us with information on what sort of research they would be interested in exploring.
How do HDR students contribute to the work the Institute is doing? Where do you see your current HDR students working in the future? How do you see them contributing to the field in future?
HDR students are a core part of the Institute’s work, and they are also drivers of innovation in our ways of working. They currently make up around one third our researchers and are very active in our EMCR Committee.
Our HDR students can stay on to become research leaders and can also progress to careers in government, community organisations, non-government organisations, and consultancies.
What advice can you provide to a prospective student looking to work in the same field?
Speak to lots of people, find out what you like and ask for an opportunity to give it a go. Trust yourself and keep a strong focus on why you do what you do. Most opportunities will come along again, so it’s ok to say no. Ask for help when you need it and make sure you take some time out to celebrate when something goes well. This will keep it rewarding for you, and quality will always shine through. And remember: leaving your comfort zone is hard work and scary, but that really is where the magic happens!
The future of the Institute for Health Transformation
What do you think will be some of the most exciting or ground-breaking uses of the Institute’s research in 10-20 years’ time?
Our research is working towards:
- Changes to how our food is produced and sold to enable Australians to make eating a healthy diet the easiest option.
- Systemic improvements in our mental health and aged care systems that put the consumer first while still enabling financial sustainability.
- An integrated approach to delivering remote healthcare to rural and regional Australians that reduces the current inequalities in health outcomes.
- A blueprint for making Australia’s healthcare providers global environmental leaders.