The TBI Network will act as a hub for research, training, education and networking – fostering collaboration between patients and whānau, cultural advisors, service providers, clinicians, researchers and policymakers.
Associate Professor Alice Theadom, director of the TBI Network, says: “By working together, we can help set priorities for traumatic brain injury prevention, clinical care and rehabilitation – taking steps to ensure that developments in research are effectively translated into clinical practice and public health policy.”
The not-for-profit research network aims to reduce the devastating impact of TBI on patients and whānau, the huge public health burden and economic cost.
Around 36,000 people in New Zealand suffer a TBI each year. The majority of them are caused by falls, being hit by (or hitting your head against) an object, motor vehicle accidents and assaults. The estimated annual cost to the public health system is NZ$100 million.
Infants, children and adolescents are at greater risk than any other age group. Men are twice as likely as women to sustain a moderate to severe TBI. Māori and Pacific peoples have increased incidence and mortality rates following TBI. They are also more likely to have a prolonged stay in hospital and be discharged without community services.
One in three New Zealanders will experience at least one TBI by the age of 25.
Public awareness of TBI has grown, but it has not been sufficient to prompt policy change.
Additionally, policymakers tend to take small steps, building on existing policies rather than establishing the type of wide reforms needed to tackle TBI.
Associate Professor Theadom is a psychologist at AUT’s School of Public Health and Psychosocial Studies. A Rutherford Discovery Fellow and member of the National Institute for Stroke and Applied Neurosciences, she currently leads a programme of research that looks at how to prevent and support recovery following a TBI.
She says that while a lot has been achieved over the past 10 years, a gap remains between research and clinical practice.
Healthcare in New Zealand can be highly variable. According to TBI patients and whānau, the current system is fragmented. At a clinical level, TBI poses significant challenges for treatment and rehabilitation. Highly developed systems are required to manage patients effectively across the injury severity spectrum with any continuity from prehospital to post-acute care. Yet, there is a lack of evidence-based guidelines to inform service providers.
Better prevention, improved systems of care and long-term investment in TBI research across a broad range of disciplines is desperately needed.
Associate Professor Theadom says it’s time for a new approach.
“We need to focus on research that matters. It’s crucial that people affected by TBI and service providers are involved in shaping what research needs to be done. If we can work together throughout the process, we can deliver research that meets their needs and makes a real difference,” she says.
“It can take a long time for research to lead to changes in everyday practice, but the TBI Network is dedicated to finding new and creative ways to make research readily available and have a more immediate impact.”
More recently, research has expanded from a singular focus on severe TBI to a greater awareness of the potential longer-term effects of mild TBI and concussion, including social-behavioural problems, poor communication skills, relationship difficulties, unemployment and reduced community participation.
More than 90 percent of TBIs are mild or related to concussion.
The majority of people will completely recover from symptoms related to concussion. However, the longer-term effects of TBI can vary depending on the nature and number of hits to the head, the age and gender of the individual, and quality of medical attention received.
The TBI Network comprises disciplines as wide-ranging as psychology, rehabilitation, biomechanics, epidemiology, neurophysiology, education, community and politics.
Research projects currently underway by TBI Network members look at: awareness (knowledge, attitudes and behaviour towards concussion), assessment and diagnosis (determining TBI through saliva and blood tests), treatment and rehabilitation (peer mentoring, the role of exercise and nutrition, and effectiveness of treatments in different contexts, such as sports, concussion clinics and prisons), prediction of recovery (traditional mathematical approaches and computer-generated models), impact and outcomes (general health and wellbeing, how we think, feel, interact with others and behave).
The TBI Network aims to encourage new researchers and grow capacity in the field. Members currently supervise almost 20 postgraduate students at masters or doctoral level.
AUT PhD candidate, Josh McGeown, is looking at optimisation of mild TBI assessment and rehabilitation strategies. He is a member of the Rugby Codes Research Group and has also operated his own rehabilitation business, where he has worked with a wide range of neurological conditions.
“I have a personal history of brain injury, which involved significant memory issues and depression. Having gone through that process, I realised that I wanted to try and be part of the solution,” he says.
Associate Professor Theadom says: “We want to hear from people with an interest in this area – whether it’s someone willing to share their personal experience, researchers seeking to collaborate and work differently, clinicians wanting to upskill or organisations looking to do more in this area – we can connect you with a talented group of people looking to make a difference”.
For more information about the TBI Network and ways to get involved click here.