A multidisciplinary team from Deakin University will develop and test an online community consultation tool to get a clearer picture on how rural and remote communities access and purchase food and how this influences their dietary behaviour. 

The research collaboration – between specialised engineering and IT researchers from Deakin’s Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (IISRI) and health experts from the Institute for Health Transformation (IHT) – hope to understand the dietary risks for rural and remote Australians, who face shorter lifespans and higher rates of diet-related disease compared to those in metropolitan areas. 

The project has just received a share of $9.5 million in funding awarded to Deakin from the Federal Government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF). 

Led by Dr Cindy Needham, the project will run out of IHT’s Global Centre for Preventive Health and Nutrition (GLOBE), an acclaimed research centre focused on improving population health in Australia and globally. Dr Needham received a MRFF Early to Mid-Career Researcher Grant, worth more than $750,000. 

Deakin’s team has pioneered the use of cutting-edge ‘systems thinking’ and social sciences where we work directly with consumers and communities to co-design effective interventions for obesity, physical inactivity, and unhealthy food behaviours,” Dr Needham said. 

“However, in-person research programs – where researchers sit down with people to understand complex issues – can limit community participation, particularly in rural and remote communities. That’s why we will develop and test an online application – using IISRI and GLOBE’sSystems Thinking in Community Knowledge Exchange (STICKE) technology – to understand how Aussie communities access and buy food and how their circumstances influence their dietary choices.” 

The research will be conducted in two local government areas – the Colac Otway Shire in Victoria and Tamworth Regional Council in New South Wales.

Dr Needham explained that research shows people purchase different foods depending on their access to food retail outlets.  

“For example, where people must travel further to access grocery stores, they might adapt their purchasing to lessen the requirement for additional trips by purchasing more non-perishable and frozen foods.” 

Dr Needham’s team of health researchers will work alongside IISRI Director Professor Douglas Creighton and the Institute’s Associate Professor Michael Johnstone by using their findings to co-design solutions and interventions specifically for rural and remote areas.  

According to Associate Professor Johnstone, the STICKE approach to consultation will help the team better understand the complex drivers of unhealthy diets and when to intervene. 

“By transferring the data collection process to a virtual platform, Deakin’s researchers can engage with a particular community to speed up the consultation process, more easily communicate and achieve consensus on problems, and agree on policy and program initiatives – while engaging across broader stakeholder pools,” Associate Professor Johnstone said. 

“STICKE is an efficient and effective system for understanding complex community issues, generating causal loop diagrams showing a stakeholder community’s understanding of the complex problem in its entirety, contributing factors, relationships and influences all in one platform. 

“Now that the NBN is giving coverage to remote and rural areas, there is a greater opportunity to use proven systems thinking methods such as STICKE to improve health outcomes for communities in isolated areas.” 

Read more about Dr Cindy Needham

This article appeared in the Geelong Advertiser, Friday 1 March 2024.