People in Focus: protecting the eyesight of people with diabetes

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1. Project summary (maximum 150 words)

Our eyes are our window to the world around us– so we need to do everything possible to protect them. Alarmingly, all people living with diabetes are at risk of losing their eyesight. Eye checks can help prevent over 95% of eye problems, but Australians with diabetes are still going blind.

I am at the end of my PhD journey with the Medical Robotics team at QUT and our vision is to develop innovations in technology, policy and service to protect the eyesight of all people. I have been using collaborative and creative methods to work with an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health service in Queensland. Together we are developing people focused eye checks to stop blindness for Queenslanders, before it is too late. This project is improving diabetes care at the Brisbane based health service but also has the potential to inspire improved care across Queensland and globally. 

2. How does your project benefit Queensland? (maximum 500 words)

An Australian develops diabetes every five minutes, meaning 60 Queenslanders and 280 Australians develop diabetes every day. In Australia, diabetes is the leading cause of preventable blindness and all people living with diabetes are at risk of losing their eyesight. There are no early signs of these eye problems, so they might not know until it is too late. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are more than three times as likely to have diabetes which is also one of the top three causes of vision loss for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults.

The Australian Government has made it free through Medicare, for people to have their eyes checked by their local doctor. Millions have been invested in technology and medical developments to identify and treat this eye condition and now eye checking technology is being rolled out across Australia.

I have been researching a Brisbane based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health service that has been using this technology for the last ten years. From working with the health service we have found that medicine and technology are important, but alone they are not enough. Instead, we need to put people back into focus. We need to think about peoples experiences. For example: How will they be reminded? What it is like waiting? How they will get results? And how will they access treatment? We also need to make sure they feel the peace of mind that comes with knowing your eyes are protected for the future.

Together we are developing person-focused eye checks to stop blindness for people with diabetes before it is too late. We have implemented short term changes at the service, triggered discussion about long term improvement projects, inspired technology development and have constructive ideas for a national health policy. I am sharing our findings so other Queensland health services can develop their own person-focused diabetes care. If we act now, we can support Queenslanders with diabetes to protect their eyesight, reduce the negative social impacts of blindness and the 14 billion dollar cost of diabetes on Australian communities. Together we can stop diabetes-related eye problems from becoming the leading cause of blindness.

From this research, we have learnt an important lesson for Queensland, that when we develop new healthcare services we need to understand the perspectives of everyone involved. From the diverse people using the care, to doctors, nurses, family, and policymakers - these people are at the heart of this challenge and are best positioned to come up with ideas to enhance healthcare in their own communities and improve health globally. 

3. What STEM promotion/engagement activities do you do/have you done? (maximum 500 words)

I spend every day encouraging members of the robotics lab and health service to think about people and reminding them the best ideas come from diverse people working together. I attend Queensland based events to discuss the innovative and collaborative health research we are conducting as part of the QUT Medical and Healthcare Robotics, here in Brisbane. At these events, I have engaged with a diverse range of people, from the 200,000 members of the general public who attended the World Science Festival to international industry leaders at the World Health Congress, both hosted in Brisbane in 2018.

My journey has led me to many interesting experiences, including using my design skills to prevent blindness. Following my passions and giving things a go has brought me to where I am today. I am working in a field I never heard of as a kid, but it turned out to be a place where I have found my passion and drive. I am enthusiastic about encouraging all people, particularly young women, to follow their dreams... even if they don’t quite know where it will take them. As a Queensland Young Science Ambassador, I take every opportunity to share my work and passions with the next generation of change-makers. I have attended regional student Wonder of Science Conferences, discussed career options at a Girls in STEM camp and was on the Women in Technology Panel at the 2018 ChangeMakeHer Conference. I mentor students from a broad range of fields about using creative and collaborative methods to develop innovative solutions for healthcare.

I have been engaging with the Inala Indigenous Health Service and community throughout my research. I have conducted collaborative workshops and interviews to invite people to have a say about the future of healthcare in their community. I have also taken part in community events such as the women’s group cooking meet-ups and the community NAIDOC celebrations.

I am a multicultural woman and STEM researcher pushing the boundaries of healthcare. I am proud of my Torres Strait Islander heritage and cherish working with the Inala Indigenous Health Service. Together we are finding and building on the strengths in the community to improve healthcare and stop blindness. In the future, I hope to inspire more human-focused services, contribute to enriching the lives of Australians and people from all around the world. Ideally, this will open opportunities for the next generation of Queenslanders who will do amazing things, beyond anything we could dream of today. 

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