Diabetes poses significant challenges for people who live with the condition, as well as their families, and healthcare professionals. As the world’s fastest-growing chronic condition, it’s also one of the most widely misunderstood.

“What we are looking forward to is a future where diabetes can do no harm,” says Glen Noonan, the CEO of Diabetes Victoria.

“We will continue to work, collaborate and partner across the diabetes community.  Our partnership with Deakin University is absolutely crucial. There are big problems to solve in diabetes care, and no single organisation alone can solve them.”

Diabetes Victoria and Deakin University co-founded the Australian Centre for Behavioural Research in Diabetes (ACBRD), which is part of Deakin’s School of Psychology and IHT, after their work together identified gaps in research into the condition. “Whilst there was strong basic and clinical research being undertaken in diabetes, there wasn’t a focus on the psychosocial or behavioural aspects,” Noonan says.

Since 2010, work pioneered by the Centre has been pivotal in changing the conversation around diabetes, both in Australia and around the world, says ACBRD Director Professor Jane Speight.

“We’ve really spearheaded work around the importance of the language that we use in diabetes, how to best communicate with and about people with diabetes,” she says. “And that work has been taken up into many position statements published by national bodies across the world.”

The Centre has also led the development of resources designed to support health professionals to better understand and support the emotional wellbeing of people living with diabetes. “Those resources have been made freely available in Australia, the UK, in America, Denmark and now Spain,” Prof. Speight says. “They wouldn’t exist in those countries without the work we’ve done. That’s been hugely beneficial both to people with diabetes, and to the health professionals supporting them.”

Another key task has been to shift societal perceptions towards better understanding the significant impact that diabetes can have on individuals, says Noonan, who is also an Adjunct Professor with Deakin’s Faculty of Health.

“People with diabetes make numerous decisions about their diabetes every single day,” he says. “That means that you’ve got to be constantly thinking, you’ve got to be making decisions that can be mentally very taxing. That’s why the behavioural change aspect is so important, and why we need greater awareness of the emotional toll this condition can take on the people living with it 24/7.”

The Centre’s research into diabetes stigma has also been very impactful, igniting a strong program of similar research across the world. “A lot of research going on around the world regarding diabetes stigma wouldn’t have happened without the work we started,” Prof. Speight says. “This year, we’ve brought together many of those researchers, along with people with diabetes and health professionals, to lead an international consensus to bring an end to diabetes stigma and discrimination, which will be published later this year.

“That’s really powerful because we know discrimination due to diabetes is real. It’s real in the workforce. It’s real within the education and the school system. And that’s not good enough. So we need to research this and to have people change their behaviours.”

The work of the ACBRD into the impacts of diabetes has been powered by first-hand experience. It benefits from working closely with Diabetes Victoria’s Community Engagement team and Community Advisory Committee, which includes people with lived experience of diabetes.

Committee member Jacqui Flint says it’s imperative that the collaborative effort between Diabetes Victoria and IHT continues to elevate the voices and experiences of people living with the condition.

“Diabetes stigma is a real challenge for a lot of people in our community,” she says. “I think, for me personally, sometimes there’s that fear that people actually feel like it’s your fault, that you might not only have the condition, but that you’re not managing it absolutely perfectly.”

She says the Centre’s research is particularly relevant because it addresses many broad aspects of living with diabetes. “The focus is on more than just physical health, it’s around psychological influences and social influences and behavioural. For people living with chronic illnesses, physical health management is just one small part.

“This research is a beacon of hope for many of us in terms of improving the way we live with diabetes.”

The Centre is located within Diabetes Victoria’s offices in Carlton. “This has been a critical benefit for the collaboration,” says Professor Rachel Huxley, the Executive Dean of Deakin University’s Faculty of Health.

“That enables us to be on the front foot. We’re at the coalface in terms of what really matters to individuals living with diabetes, and have been able to implement our findings from day one.”

Organisations partnering with Deakin University’s Faculty of Health and IHT have an opportunity to access expertise from across the university’s multi-disciplinary community of experts.

“We have one of the largest health economics units within the country,” Prof. Huxley says. “Having strong, robust information about the cost effectiveness of an intervention is pivotal to the success and uptake of a particular initiative.”

She cites trust and open communication as essential elements to forming successful partnerships. “We have to have a very strong understanding of what our partner organisation is wanting, and I think we’ve done that remarkably well with Diabetes Victoria,” she says.

“For any organisation that’s really looking to transform how it solves the problems that they’re facing in their particular communities by partnering with institutions who have the know-how to actually solve these problems, I think that’s a way forward.”

Noonan says shared vision and goals are vital. “From a leadership perspective, I look for trust, and values and behaviours that are similar to ours. And then I look at what we can achieve from a partnership perspective.

“Putting all that together is really the package. And I think in the case of the ACBRD, Diabetes Victoria and Deakin, we’ve got that.”

The ACBRD has been able to leverage growth and research impact far beyond the scope of the initial financial co-investment made by Diabetes Victoria and Deakin University to establish and maintain the Centre.

Its achievements highlight how IHT researchers can build on even a small investment in research to win grant funding and grow the value of that investment, whilst working to make a real difference to the issues of concern for their partner organisations.