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Small wins in local communities make national change possible

6 June 2016

A Prevention Centre project is tapping into the experience of local communities to tackle the epidemic of lifestyle-related chronic disease facing Australia.

The project, called Prevention Tracker, is working with communities to describe their system of preventing chronic disease and to develop ways to improve that system.

Dr Therese Riley

Project co-leader Dr Therese Riley said Prevention Tracker was a manageable way to explore the complex and almost overwhelming problem of chronic disease facing Australia – aiming for small wins in local communities that have the potential to bring bigger change further afield.

“We hope to find the common set of methods of Prevention Tracker that can be rolled out or implemented in a range of other communities,” said Dr Riley, a Senior Research Fellow with the Prevention Centre. “It may also be feasible to operate this way at a state or national level.”

The project is an expansion of a successful pilot held in Glenorchy, Tasmania, last year, which Dr Riley said provided great insights into a local prevention system, including identifying the prevention workforce and how organisations connected with each other.

Thinking systems

Systems thinking is at the core of Prevention Tracker’s methods to explore how local communities improve health, she said. “Lifestyle-related chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes, are the biggest health issue facing Australia. They are a complex problem and we have to look for new ways to tackle it,“ Dr Riley said.

“Systems thinking has been used to understand complex problems because it helps us to see the big picture – how the problem we’re trying to solve is made up of connected and inter-related parts.”

While a lot of activities in local communities encourage healthy lifestyles, little is known about how people, activities and networks connect to shape a local prevention system.

“If we can understand these interconnections, using systems thinking tools and methods, it may be the first step to coming up with new ways to prevent chronic disease,” Dr Riley said.

This year, Prevention Tracker will expand to 3-4 diverse communities across Australia, including a regional WA community. Discussions are also underway with two NSW communities – one urban and one remote. In each of these communities over two years, the project will use a range of methods to explore the prevention system and identify ways to improve it, including:

  • Exploring local prevention activities and interviewing people involved in that work
  • Analysing links between organisations
  • Reviewing how the environment affects health
  • Holding community workshops
  • Trying to improve the prevention system.

Local energy

Dr Riley said a key aspect of Prevention Tracker was working with the local community, harnessing “local energy and potential for change”.

“We will engage with people in communities who have the capacity and the authority to implement the strategies that are identified,” she said. “It’s not an intervention devised and implemented from afar.”

For the communities themselves, Prevention Tracker will map their prevention activities, uncover challenges, and help to develop and strengthen links between organisations.

Dr Riley hopes a key legacy of Prevention Tracker is that it will provide insights into the usefulness of systems thinking methods.

“There’s furious agreement in public health that we need a new way to think about chronic disease prevention,” she said. “Many think that systems science can do this but we know little about what this looks like in practice.”

Prevention Tracker is putting systems science to the test, “with community members who are willing to learn and experiment with us”.

“At the end of this phase of Prevention Tracker, I hope we have shown it’s possible to infuse systems thinking into the day-to-day practice of prevention in a local community and to support changes that have an impact,” Dr Riley said.

Marge Overs, Communications Manager