$2.2 million to fix pain affecting millions every day

University of Sydney Professor Paulo Ferreira, Westmead Hospital physiotherapy deputy manager Katherine Maka and senior physiotherapist Dragana Ceprnja.

Nearly four million Australians suffer from lower back pain at any one time – but physiotherapists from Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD) are aiming to change that.

Patients who are discharged from hospital outpatient physiotherapy services after being treated for lower back pain – the leading cause of disability in Australia – will now receive free follow-up calls from a personal health coach to help them eat healthily and get active.

University of Sydney researchers have partnered with WSLHD Allied Health for the past five years to find the best way to help patients stay healthy in the community after they complete treatment in the hospital.

The approach will now be trialled in Western Sydney, South Western Sydney and Sydney local health districts, helping patients recovering from conditions such as osteoarthritis and intervertebral disc disease.

Lower back pain has a variety of causes but can often be alleviated with exercise and improved diet.

Westmead Hospital senior physiotherapist Dragana Ceprnja said the main feedback from consumers was they needed more support to know the right things to do for their own health.

“The idea is to make the Get Healthy NSW phone coaching service a routine part of the patient discharge process, ensuring people have follow-up care to help them create healthier diet and exercise habits in the community,” Dragana said.

“Lower back pain is the leading contributor to disability in Australia and globally, so anything we can do to help patients get healthy will have a huge economic impact as well as the health and social benefits.”

The promising project has just been awarded a prestigious $2.2 million National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grant to continue collecting crucial data and training clinicians in the new system, which addresses the main lifestyle choices that contribute to lower back pain. The project will be led by Professor Paulo Ferreira from the Sydney School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health, University of Sydney.

Dragana said the team has been working on the proposal for over five years and is “extremely excited” by the research grant.

“This grant provides a unique opportunity to bring together expert clinicians and academics to test a new service model that we hope will help patients make healthy life habits to improve their quality of life, including pain management,” Paulo said.

Westmead Hospital physiotherapy deputy manager Katherine Maka said the research grant brings together highly qualified clinicians, policy makers, and high-calibre researchers in areas including lower back pain, physical activity and health economics.

“This grant allows us to build on the long-standing relationship between WSLHD and University of Sydney in order to provide a wider opportunity to develop knowledge of each other’s strengths, with the common purpose of improving outcomes and the experience of care for our patients,” Katherine said.

The investigator team is now in the process of establishing the initial trial setup, recruiting and training staff, as well as applying for ethics approval. Paulo will hold a whole investigator team meeting in 2020 and begin trial recruitment in February 2021.