Modelling drives innovation to prove the case for prevention

2 March 2018: A new Prevention Centre dynamic simulation model is enabling researchers to test the impact of innovative prevention strategies and demonstrate the economic and social benefits in a way that has never been possible in Australia before.

Systems dynamics expert Mark Heffernan
Systems dynamics expert Mark Heffernan

The Prevention Centre has created a dynamic simulation model that demonstrates the dynamic characteristics of modifiable risk factors such as alcohol use, tobacco, high body mass, high blood pressure, physical inactivity and dietary risks and their contributions to key diseases.

The model is being built by research teams from the Prevention Centre, the Sax Institute and Deakin University, using Global Burden of Disease data for Australia.

A group of leading prevention researchers, modellers, advocacy organisations and state and territory policy makers from around Australia came together in a workshop on 20 February to prioritise interventions they thought would have the biggest impact on some of the main risk factors for chronic disease. These will be tested on the model in coming months.

Prevention Centre Director, Professor Andrew Wilson, said the project would shed light for the first time on the synergistic and cumulative effects of interventions, and what the likely consequences would be over time.

“Think of all the interventions by all the agencies and different levels of government – there are dozens of things happening at any one time,” Professor Wilson said.

“Things done to address one risk factor will influence others, and that may not be in a positive way. This model will enable us to think more globally about all these different types of interventions, the type of intervention rather than the volume, and the sum benefit we might be able to gain with strategic investment across all the activities.”

The model was built as part of a flagship Prevention Centre project that is collating evidence of the preventable chronic disease burden and forecasting the economic impacts in a systematic way, and using this to communicate the need for action and potential benefits. The model will demonstrate the changing and synergistic effects of different policies, what will happen decades into the future, and the potential cost savings of addressing different risk factors.

In the second modelling workshop, participants canvassed a range of interventions to be tested, including raising taxes on alcohol, reducing risk factors in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and restricting advertising exposure of junk food and alcohol in sporting venues and clubs.

Modeller Mark Heffernan said the model was unique because it would enable researchers to study the interrelations between the risk factors and diseases. For example, an unhealthy diet and lack of physical exercise cause obesity, all of which cause cardiovascular disease independently and in combination.

“These risk factors are all potentially modifiable, meaning we can have a substantial impact on the health of the Australian population by implementing effective and cost-effective interventions,” he said.

The resulting model will use a number of measures to demonstrate the benefits of prevention, such as improvements in the length of life, quality of life, cost of managing chronic disease, productivity and benefits to the economy.