Associate Professor Rachel Sutherland celebrated in NHMRC 10 of the best

Tuesday, 2 April 2024

Translational researcher Associate Professor Rachel Sutherland has been recognised in the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) 10 of the Best list for 2024.

Associate Professor Rachel Sutherland

Now in its 15th year, 10 of the Best celebrates the calibre of the nation’s health and medical researchers working to prevent disease, improve detection and treatment methods, increase understanding of common health conditions and deliver extraordinary outcomes.

The NHMRC provides funding through its grant program, investing in innovative projects across the research spectrum that have the potential to solve complex problems, and that support the translation of research into healthcare delivery, policy, and real-life practice.

The health and wellbeing of all Australians remains at the forefront of NHMRC’s vision of building a healthy Australia. The researchers honoured in this year’s NHMRC’s 10 of the Best are addressing pressing health concerns faced by many, as well as developing cross cutting innovations that will enable other researchers to solve future health challenges. The 10 projects featured in this edition were first funded in 2021.

By researching chronic disease and implementation science in tandem, University of Newcastle and HMRI researcher Associate Professor Rachel Sutherland is working to ensure the latest health research can benefit entire communities, leading to programs that can be effectively scaled up to reach more people across Australia and the globe.

Associate Professor Rachel Sutherland is trying to solve some of the world’s most enduring health challenges, including obesity and sedentary lifestyles. Her research aims to better understand chronic disease and create evidence-based solutions.

She is also committed to researching the best ways of implementing those solutions into routine care and practice - allowing the latest research to have a direct impact in people’s lives and create community-wide change.

Getting adolescents active for health benefits

Associate Professor Sutherland’s project featured in the 2024 NHMRC 10 of the Best:

‘A randomised trial of an intervention to facilitate the implementation of evidence based secondary school physical activity practices’.

Less than 10 per cent of adolescents globally, including in Australia, do enough physical activity to align with the amount required for young people to be healthy.

Through her NHMRC Translating Research into Practice Fellowship, Associate Professor Sutherland aimed to find evidence-based methods that would embed physical activity programs in schools, particularly in low socioeconomic status (Low SES) areas.

Associate Professor Sutherland worked closely with 49 secondary schools; not always an easy feat as school staff are incredibly busy. The COVID-19 pandemic also presented a significant challenge, but this didn’t deter Associate Professor Sutherland.

“Highlights included bringing teachers together and the substantial increase in the implementation of evidence based physical activity practices. The project also had unintended positive consequences where passionate teachers were uplifted and secured leadership opportunities in their schools,” she said.

“People learning from each other, and the resulting Community of Practice translated to tangible results. There is very little research evaluating effective strategies to support schools to implement evidence into practice. Our strategies resulted in over 7 in 10 schools fully implementing the program. That’s something I’m really proud of,” Associate Professor Sutherland said.

The Fellowship work achieved substantial impact in NSW including:

  • Best-practice physical activity practices in schools improving from 0 per cent to 72 per cent within 12 months and maintained at 2 years.
  • The exposure of ~50,000 adolescents to best practice physical activity environments.
  • Internationally significant findings as the first and only program internationally to increase low SES adolescent physical activity by 49 minutes/week (equivalent to a 10 per cent increase) and limit unhealthy weight gain (2kg difference between groups), in low SES adolescents.

The evidence generated from the research has now been used in a NSW government modelling study, is being scaled up across the region and Associate Professor Sutherland’s expertise is being used to design future education and health policies.

National focus on nutrition

The Fellowship inspired Dr Sutherland to embrace her research career. She secured another Medical Research Future Fund Fellowship to conduct school-based research on nutrition and physical activity.

“It’s been lovely to be able to pursue various interests focused on implementation and scale up research. The NHMRC Fellowship really cemented that I wanted the academic research career path but with a research translation focus,” Associate Professor Sutherland said.

She is now conducting national scale-up trials to support parents to pack healthy school lunchboxes via embedding the program into existing school communication apps.

“I’m sure that the transferable nature of implementation science to other priority health issues will provide big benefits into the future.”

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