$1.5m grant to improve integration of diet advice in health system

Improving the quality of dietary advice given by general practitioners and other front-line health professionals will be the key focus of Dr Lauren Ball and her team of researchers at Griffith University under a new five-year grant.

The $1.5 million National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grant follows a previous five-year grant Dr Ball received from the same organisation, the first time a dietitian had received funding in its history.

Dr Ball is one of the world’s leading experts on the integration of dietary advice into health systems, an area where a significant amount of work needs to be done to improve the quality and consistency of advice and treatment offered to patients.

Most recently, Dr Ball was lead author on a paper published by The Lancet Planetary Health, which found medical training had insufficient focus on diet, and that many medical practitioners across the world lacked the confidence to give dietary advice.

“How we get everyone in primary care — anyone you can walk up to without a referral — giving evidence-based nutrition advice when patients want it, in the way that they want it, is beneficial for the health system,” Dr Ball said. “It is cost-effective, and it keeps people out of hospital.”

Dr Ball’s team of 11 people, based at the Menzies Health Institute Queensland, at Griffith University’s Gold Coast campus, will have three key priorities over the next five years:

1. Shifting the health system from a problem base to a prevention base in nutrition;
2. Improving the systems that support the dietitian workforce in Australia; and
3. Educating medical professionals on how to provide evidence-based nutrition advice.

One of their initial tasks will be to undertake a study to understand what patients want. A key question is: Do they want to get health and nutrition advice in primary care?

During the study, Dr Ball will work with social listening researchers to understand what the general public is talking about on online, to guide the design of a patient intervention.

Another core task during the five-year fellowship is the roll out of a tool designed by Dr Ball, called NutriCare, to GPs across Australia, which will be monitored to find out whether it is improving care and improving patients’ diets.

“We are aiming to implement NutriCare across all of Australia in concert with interventions that will help get more people access to nutrition care earlier and from more health professionals,” Dr Ball said.

“In terms of primary care research, dietetics and nutrition is as important to the health system as any other aspect of care, such as medication and drug discovery, and it hasn’t always been that way in the past,” Dr Ball said.

“It is very relevant to everything, and it doesn’t get assigned to one specific health professional and I think that is a real challenge. But things are changing, and that is a good thing.”

Robert Hunt, CEO of Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA), said he was delighted that the NHMRC had recognised Dr Ball’s research with the Emerging Leadership (Level 2) Fellowship grant.

“DAA considers it crucial that key allied health professionals, including dietitians, have an embedded role in primary care to ensure evidence-based nutrition advice,” he said.

“The dietetics profession seeks a very strong engagement with primary health care and indeed with all general practitioners.

“Dr Ball is a recognised expert in this field, and we welcome this substantial investment in this important work.”