Archived: Experts meet to map complex factors in childhood obesity

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Researchers and policy makers map the causes of childhood overweight and obesity

August 2016

Researchers, policy makers and service providers have participated in the first of three workshops to inform the NSW Premier’s Priority for reducing childhood overweight and obesity.

The workshops will contribute to the collaborative development of a dynamic simulation model of the complex factors leading to childhood overweight and obesity.

The final model will be a ‘what if’ tool that can be used to test and forecast the impacts of a range of policies and programs to see what combination of interventions might help achieve the Premier’s target of a 5% reduction in childhood overweight and obesity within 10 years.

An open and transparent model

Dynamic simulation modelling is an approach that has been used successfully in other sectors such as engineering and business for many years.  It is now emerging as a valuable approach for the health sector to help policy makers test policy decisions in the virtual world before implementing them in real life.

Co-facilitator Dr Jo-An Atkinson, who leads the Prevention Centre’s work in evidence synthesis and simulation for policy, said the project was being done in partnership with NSW Health and the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

She said the project aimed to use dynamic simulation modelling as a decision support tool that integrates evidence sources including research, administrative and survey data, expert knowledge and practice experience.

“Embedding stakeholder engagement and consensus building processes in the development of dynamic simulation models is important, not only for developing a more robust tool, but also for achieving cross-disciplinary learning, communication and collective action,” Dr Atkinson said.

Dr Jo Mitchell, Executive Director of the Centre for Population Health at NSW Health, said the benefit of the Prevention Centre’s approach is that the process of developing the model is open and transparent.

“It’s a glass box rather than a black box, which is important in terms of believing the model,” said Dr Mitchell, who has been involved in the alcohol simulation modelling project.

“The thing that is important for me is that it’s robust, that it involves clinicians, prevention practitioners and academics in building the model, and locates the evidence to support the model – it’s credible,” she said.

Bringing expertise together

Before the workshop, participants prioritised a number of potential interventions for childhood overweight and obesity. During the day, participants used their collective expertise to map the interaction of factors that contribute to overweight and obesity in NSW. Participants also discussed where and how interventions act within the complex map.

Participant Dr Luke Wolfenden, from the University of Newcastle, said he was surprised by the complexity of modelling and the number of potentially interacting factors that might predict the outcome of childhood obesity.

Another participant, Mr Mark West, from Queensland Department of Health, said dynamic simulation modelling could help address the challenge of providing evidence-based policy options to government about complex public health issues.

”We should use as many tools and intelligence as possible to inform our decision making, in particular for forecasting,” he said.

The initial model framework developed at this workshop will be combined with various data sets to create a computer model that represents the real world. The next workshop will be held on 21 October, when stakeholders will critique the developing model, and continue to explore potential solutions to childhood overweight and obesity.

This project follows a Prevention Centre project that successfully applied these methods to explore policy options for reducing alcohol-related harms in NSW.