Optus Drives Rapid Response Research to Fight COVID-19

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La Trobe University researchers are rapidly embarking on ways to improve community health and wellbeing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with new targeted grants from La Trobe, Medibank and Optus.

Called the ‘Rapid Response Research’ grants, three new projects will receive a total of $250,000 to investigate the mental and physical health impacts of working from home, telehealth physiotherapy rehabilitation for cancer survivors and virtual care technologies.

The grants will target projects requiring a rapid turnaround and with an immediate impact. All three projects will be completed by February 2021.

La Trobe Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Industry Engagement) Professor Susan Dodds said the research will resonate with the health sector as well as individuals feeling the impact of COVID-19 in their lives.

“These projects exemplify La Trobe’s guiding principle of working with and for our communities, to achieve tangible outcomes that benefit the world,” Professor Dodds said.

“Together with partners, Optus and Medibank, we’re bringing our expertise to improving health and wellbeing in Australia, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds.

“These are uncertain times globally. Quality university research projects are crucial to solving the challenges we face now, and in the future.”

Dr Linda Swan, Medibank’s Chief Medical Officer and executive lead of the Medibank Better Health Foundation, said COVID-19 has presented some unique problems for many in the community, and the brightest minds are needed to come up with a solution.

“Diseases like cancer don’t stop for a pandemic, so how do we ensure immune compromised patients still have access to vital physiotherapy and exercise sessions from home. While telehealth and virtual homecare services have been around for a while, COVID-19 has seen demand greatly increase and more user-friendly options are now required by patients, clinicians and hospitals,” said Dr Swan.

“There are also serious health and wellbeing concerns stemming from working from home long term. These are conversations between employers and their people that you couldn’t have imagined having six-months ago. As a community we need to know more about the impact,” she added.

Deon Liebenberg, Optus Business Vice President Product Innovation, said: “We are pleased to be part of this timely and important work from La Trobe University. Mental health is critical to maintaining productivity, and we believe La Trobe’s efforts will contribute to a stronger workforce and help better understand and support the new ways of remote working.”

Funded projects

Mental and physical health impacts of working from home

Lead researcher: Associate Professor Jodi Oakman, $100,000

The researchers will assess and gather data on the mental and physical health impacts of working from home. The project will develop guidelines on how to protect and optimise employee health and wellbeing while working from home.

“The current global pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented situation with wide-ranging health and economic impacts,” said Associate Professor Oakman, leader of ergonomic, safety and health at La Trobe.

“The work environment has been significantly impacted for most of the working population with many of us now working at home to try and control the spread of the virus. The gendered impact of COVID-19 is now emerging as an issue, with women faring much worse than men on a range of measures – so it’s important that we explore the impacts of working from home on health and wellbeing to ensure that we can optimise the situation for both employers and employees.”

Telerehabilitation for cancer survivors

Lead researcher: Dr Amy Dennett, $50,000

This project will evaluate a comprehensive package of telehealth physical rehabilitation for people with cancer. The package will include virtual group exercise, one-on-one health coaching, and an interactive online information portal.

“It is important for health services to know how to introduce telehealth programs for people with cancer during COVID-19 and beyond,” said Dr Amy Dennett, a physiotherapist and La Trobe researcher based at Eastern Health.

“People with cancer typically have poor access to exercise rehab programs, despite research showing it can improve outcomes, including quality of life. It’s critical to keep this vulnerable population healthy and out of hospital during the COVID-19 period. This research will tell us how tele-rehabilitation can be implemented for cancer survivors and will help set them up for healthy active lifestyles in the long term.”

Virtual care technologies

Lead researchers: Professor Ani Desai and Professor James Boyd, $100,000

This project will develop a framework to evaluate virtual care models, such as remote health monitoring of patients discharged from hospitals who are at high risk of readmission or for the ongoing monitoring of patient health in the residential aged care settings.

“Governments worldwide are using social distancing to contain the spread of COVID-19. This is causing significant challenges for hospitals,” said Professor Desai, Director of La Trobe’s Centre for Technology Infusion.

“We’ll look at how virtual remote care technologies can be used in an effective and safe manner during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Ideally these technologies will enable hospital patients to be discharged earlier, to safely recover at home. We’ll develop a framework for homebased virtual care, with input from clinicians and feedback from patients and families.”

The project will be run in collaboration with Northern Health, Proactive Aging and HalleyAssist, using existing technologies.