Transforming health

Professor Meg Morris talks with Giselle Roberts about the Academic and Research Collaborative in Health and putting the patient first

Professor Meg Morris sits in her office on a grey Monday afternoon, hands clasped, with a striking cobalt abstract as her backdrop. The painting, a riot of bold colour and bolder brushstrokes, somehow works in tandem with Morris’ energy. She is upbeat: as Director of the Academic and Research Collaborative in Health, or ARCH, she is poised to relaunch the Collaborative with a new website and seminar series that will position it as a leading health presence in Victoria. “I often describe it as a partnership on steroids,” says Morris, smiling.

The ARCH occupies pride of place in La Trobe’s health and wellbeing model, which was recently ranked second in the world by the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings. The Collaborative brings together eight leading Victorian healthcare providers – Alfred Health, Austin Health, Eastern Health, Healthscope, Mercy Health, Northern Health, The Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Women’s – to work on a range of projects so that research outcomes can be quickly translated to clinicians, patients and policy makers. “Our main aim,” Morris notes, “is to deliver better healthcare to Australians.”

Morris, who is also Site Director of the Healthscope ARCH and Professor of Clinical and Rehabilitation Practice, is an expert on translational research. She trained as a physiotherapist – “when I started out, it seemed like a great career and that’s proven to be the case,” she says – and after a gap year, began working as a clinician to help people living with Parkinson’s disease, or PD. A PhD followed, along with a desire to make her mark in evidence-based practice.

“My research career has focused on what level of physical activity is required for people living with PD, and how we might encourage them to exercise so that its enjoyable and achievable over the longer-term,” she says. Today Morris is regarded as an international leader in physiotherapy, whose programs help patients to reap the benefits of physical activity, slow disease progression and, remarkably, find moments of joy. There’s dancing for PD, boxing for PD, hydrotherapy for PD, singing for PD and community walking programs for PD.

“I’ve watched some people with PD struggle to enter a dance hall and fight to get up a few stairs,” she says. “Then the music begins, a different part of the brain is accessed and, suddenly, they can dance. It’s wonderful to watch as their PD fades away for a short period of time. It gives them joy and it gives me joy. But, most importantly, it renews their commitment to keep moving.”

A joint appointment between La Trobe University and Healthscope has facilitated this research, providing Morris with the opportunity to marry academic endeavour with clinical translation, and actively co-partner with people living with PD. It creates a dynamic, she says, that allows patients, clinicians and researchers to collaborate closely “so that once we get the evidence, we have a direct mechanism for translating it.”

That model is also the lynchpin of the ARCH. “We are working collaboratively to optimise healthcare quality and outcomes, to harness our efforts and our power to make a real difference. Together we can embark on major projects with hundreds of participants, instead of smaller trials. We can generate knowledge that tackles the big health questions of our time. And we can provide our students with the opportunity to train in world-class, evidence-based environments.”

The ARCH’s ambitious research agenda spans aging and aged care, chronic disease, falls and fracture, health service evaluation, maternal and child health and rehabilitation. And Morris’ plans are expansive, designed to enhance reputation and translation. The Collaborative’s new website showcases the partnership’s vision, while a free, online public seminar series will connect the ARCH to a global audience. Morris herself will give the inaugural seminar on embedding a research culture in hospitals and getting consumers engaged to enhance research impact. “We want to use this series to develop an international Community of Practice,” she says, “to enhance our network and share ideas.”

“I care about this deeply,” adds Morris. “They say that when you’re a health professional, you should maintain professional distance. That’s important, yet we should never lose sight of the person behild the disease. When I am writing a paper or a grant proposal, I picture a person living with PD and their family, and I care about getting a result for them. I’m happiest when I am working with patients and clinicians at Healthscope and in the community. This site is just one living example of the ARCH achieving real and lasting impact. Together, our partnership will take health outcomes to the next level.”

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