Taking on the pandemic with Professor Anna Peeters

The COVID-19 pandemic has made health, research and communication more important than ever. And no one feels that responsibility and opportunity more keenly than Anna Peeters, Director of Deakin’s Institute for Health Transformation, and Professor of Epidemiology and Equity in Public Health. The former President of the Australian and New Zealand Obesity Society and 2014 winner of the World Obesity Federation Andre Mayer Award for research excellence in obesity says now is the time for universities and health institutes to step up.

Written by Katelyn Swallow

This article was originally published in Deakin University’s internal publication Network. Network spoke to Anna about building an institute from the ground-up and creating the partnerships, systems and outcomes Australia (and the world) needs for best health and care.

How did you first come to Deakin?
I arrived at Deakin in 2015, after a term at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute and, before that, at Monash University. Along with 12 of my colleagues from Baker, I was part of a research program looking at determinants of health and obesity prevention. We merged with others at Deakin University to create the Global Obesity Centre and I worked closely with the campus services and facilities team in the development of the Deakin Food Charter. The broader collaboration offered by Deakin University has been fantastic for both myself and my team.

When the Deakin Council created the Institute for Health Transformation in 2019, the role of Director came up, and I felt it aligned perfectly with my interest in the strategic use of research and evidence to inform equitable health outcomes. So, I put my hand up.

What does a day in your life running the Institute look like?
Much of my time is spent ensuring we have the strategic and operational teams and processes to support our researchers. Over the last two years, we have built an excellent operational team to support the researchers in development of tenders, achievement of excellence in competitive research, and communication of the research outcomes.

I enjoy working on a strategic level with researchers – digging out the big questions and partnerships, and ensuring the Institute has the right skill mixes to do our best work. We each have our own expertise and our own paradigms, and the possibility of bringing them together to form valuable ideas and outcomes is really exciting.

What is the process of creating an institute that people may not be aware of?
Communications plays a key role. It not only builds the profile of the researchers, Institute and University – aiding our funding and partnership opportunities – but it also allows the important work of the researchers to be made public and useable. Developing the skills of the researchers to communicate and putting mechanisms in place to get the word out there has been a key part of my role.

Early- to mid-career researchers (EMCRs), in particular, have really blossomed in the new Institute. They have worked together to identify their needs and propose strategies for their support. Recently, we have worked with the comms team to run a competition between the EMCR researchers, asking them to write a news article on what their research could mean for society post-COVID. It’s been fantastic to see researchers and communicators join together to produce some fantastic pieces.

Why you are passionate about the Institute and what are your goals for the year ahead?
The two are closely intertwined. I think COVID-19 presents a significant opportunity and responsibility for the Institute and Deakin to demonstrate how it can effectively work with government and non-government health partners to rapidly develop interventions and solutions to the current pandemic.

The real strength of the Institute is that we already have many of the partnerships in place – partnerships in mental health, health systems, food systems and determinants of health, just to name a few. A robust response to COVID-19 needs systems in place that optimise health, social and economic outcomes.

Can you provide an example?
Earlier this year, Deakin and the Institute partnered with Barwon Health to deliver and evaluate a telehealth facility offering safe and appropriate mental health care to people in Geelong. It was a fantastic service to the community, that also mitigated the risk of further transmission and infection of COVID-19. But it also offered a real-world opportunity to evaluate and test our technology and methods, and to see the partners and skill mix that work best.

What are your top four tips for people working from home?
1. Be kind to yourself. Recognise that this is a challenging time for everyone, but different people will be impacted in different ways.
2. Plan your workday and set realistic expectations. It’s important you divide your day into a work component and a ‘home component’ – despite both being completed in the same location. Depending on how you work, calendar blocking or to-do-lists may be helpful for different tasks – personally, I utilise electronic to-do-lists and set a due date for each task. But find what works best for you! What COVID has taught us is that we need a better understanding of how we work and there’s not just one way of working.
3. Identify brain breaks that work for you – taking a break will actually make you more productive. Be it a quick walk around the block, gardening or working on a jigsaw puzzle, find whatever helps you to feel relaxed and recharged.
4. Build connectivity into your day. It’s really important we still feel connected to friends, family and community, despite being physically distanced. Whether it’s talking to a neighbour across a nature strip, taking a suitably distanced (and masked) walk with a friend, or tech-based call through Zoom or phone, it’s important you don’t feel alone.

Looking for more mental health and wellbeing information? You can find tips for managing stress here.