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Digital intervention engagement: reducing chronic disease risk and improving mental health

4 October 2022
Researcher Spotlight: Dr Louise Thornton
We spoke to research fellow Dr Louise Thornton, program lead in digital interventions and engagement at the Matilda Centre about her switch from opera singing to research, generating ideas, and addressing the low adoption and adherence of digital health interventions.
Louise Thornton sitting and smiling at the camera

Dr Louise Thornton

What is your background and how did you come to join the Matilda Centre?

I was originally going to undertake a double degree in Psychology and Music after finishing school. I had dreams of becoming a professional opera singer.

I decided that I didn’t fancy the life of a professional musician and the frequent rejections they experience so decided to just study psychology instead.

In my first year of this degree, I got my first 'real job' as a research assistant with Professor Amanda Baker at the University of Newcastle working in the area of co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. The rest, you could say, is history.

I met the amazingly talented Frances Kay-Lambkin in this role and eventually went on to undertake a PhD and meet Frances and Amanda’s collaborators Professor Maree Teesson and Professor Bonnie Spring. After completing my PhD, I spent time as a visiting Post-doctoral fellow with Professor Spring at Northwestern University in Chicago.

During my time there, I became passionate about the role digital health approaches can play in helping people to improve their mental and physical health. After returning to Australia, I was fortunate enough to be awarded a UNSW Vice-Chancellors Post-doctoral Fellowship which allowed me to officially join the Centre for Research Excellence in Mental Health and Substance Use team, that would later become the Matilda Centre at the University of Sydney.

Can you tell us about your main area of research and the projects/trials you have been involved with?

My research examines how digital technologies can be most effectively leveraged to reduce chronic disease risk and improve people’s mental health. My research primarily focusses on adolescents and young people, and people experiencing mental health problems.

Increasingly, I am spending my time trying to solve the 'digital health engagement issue', which is that despite this great promise of digital health approaches to help people improve their mental and physical health, adoption of, and adherence to, these types of interventions is often low, even among young people.

I've been involved in the development and evaluation of a wide range of digital health programs including: MyHealthPA, a mobile-based self-monitoring program designed to help people experiencing mental health problems improve key lifestyle behaviours; Climate Schools Plus, an online parenting program designed to delay alcohol and cannabis use among adolescents; and most recently the Health4Life initiative.

As a part of Health4life, I led the development of the Health4Life app (available on Apple and Google Play), a self-monitoring and goal setting app designed to accompany the Health4Life school-based program and empower adolescents to improve key lifestyle behaviours associated with the development of chronic diseases later in life.

In your experience, what’s the most exciting part of the project journey?

For me the most exciting part of the project journey is generating the idea.

I love the process of identifying a need or a problem to be solved, learning about an innovative method that could be applied to your work, and working with others to come at a problem in a different way. The process of writing up a new project idea or a grant application is a creative one, everything is possible at this initial stage and the potential impact on knowledge and health is exciting and unlimited!

What are you working on right now?

I’m excited to be working on setting up a new project called the Triple E project, which stands for Enhancing Engagement with eHealth approaches to prevent cardiovascular disease (CVD) among adolescents.

This project was recently funded by the Medical Research Future Fund and aims to identify ways we can increase adoption of eHealth approaches to improve CVD risk behaviours among adolescents, systematically test strategies to increase adolescents' engagement with these types of tools; and facilitate the dissemination the Health4Life app to adolescents Australia-wide.

Adolescence is a critical window of opportunity to reduce behavioural risk factors and prevent premature deaths from chronic diseases, like CVD, in later life. Those services currently available for adolescents to access are unable to meet demand or effectively engage adolescents in CVD prevention. Digital health approaches have potential to fill these gaps, however as I mentioned before, adoption and adherence to digital health interventions is often low.

This research will work to help solve this critical issue facing the fields of digital, adolescent and cardiovascular health.

This October issue, we’re celebrating National Mental Health Month. So, we want to know, what is something that you do to look after your own mental health and wellbeing?

We often hear people talking about the importance of achieving good work-life balance. It has helped my own mental health and wellbeing to stop thinking about trying to achieve balance, but rather aiming to bring joy to whatever I’m doing (e.g. completing a systematic review from a café near the beach instead of in the office, listening to a favourite podcast while travelling for work, moving a meeting to a café or a walk).

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