Prof Alun Jackson

Professor Alun C Jackson

Director

Honorary Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Graduate School of Education

Honorary Professor, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

Honorary Professor, Centre on Behavioural Health. University of Hong Kong

Much of my research has focused on a single basic challenge:  What helps people improve their own health behaviour? I have always thought that it does little good if, when medical researchers discover a technique to help solve a problem, someone with that problem doesn’t learn about it or doesn’t act on what they know.

People want to have more energy and better health, to live longer, play with their grandchildren, and contribute more to their families.  But why do some not do what they know would help them achieve their own goals? Of course, we all sometimes fail to do our best and we all have explanations for our own and other people’s failings: “I have too much to do these days,” “Bill is stubborn”, and so on. But these explanations either sideline the problem or blame the person. 

Like many researchers, I find that systematic, rigorous scientific research gives much better explanations, explanations that can be turned into practice that really does help people live better. Great strides have been made in helping people to adopt safe sex practices, to reduce or give up problematic gambling, to take their medicine more reliably, to eat somewhat more healthily, and to exercise a bit more. The rate of smoking has dropped hugely in recent decades.  This is not to say that behavioural scientists have solved the problem of people ignoring medical advice. Far from it. But we have made great advances.

Over the years, I have designed and run programs for families with chronically ill children, for HIV prevention, and for problem gamblers and their families. I have studied the psychological and social reasons for, and impacts of, elective cosmetic surgery. This research and its practical lessons are reported in my 20 authored or co-authored books and monographs, and in 180 academic papers. Almost all my work focuses on finding out how best to help people and their families help themselves.

I wanted to become the Director of the Heart Research Centre because I knew that the Centre had always been devoted to helping people with heart problems help themselves. The Centre developed the Best Practice Guidelines for Cardiac Rehabilitation. It developed and tested techniques for helping people get over the debilitating depression that so often comes with heart attacks or surgery and often makes recovery much harder. It runs Australia’s largest cardiac rehabilitation training program, which helps health professionals integrate into their own practice the research about helping patients help themselves. It has developed innovative programs in disease self-management, and has launched TeleHeart.

A key part of helping people with heart problems is helping health and mental-health professionals distinguish those who need more intensive support from those who don’t. My colleagues and I have developed eight clinical screening tools, including a Paediatric Discharge Planning Screening Tool.

Getting information to the relevant professionals and the public is crucial. To do this, I helped develop several educational programs, including AIDS education programs (community-based and national) and a major Drug Education Strategy for Victoria.

I’ve now been at the Centre for over a year, overseen our transition to the Australian Centre for Heart Health, and our long term plans are looking reasonably clear. Our focus will remain on helping people deal with their cardiovascular problems. The Centre’s own research, and our synthesis of the best research of others, continue to inform our already-flourishing training program for health professionals. We will continue to build on the Centre’s long-standing research into both the effects of depression on recovery from heart attacks, and what interventions ameliorate that depression. We will continue to trial patient programs delivered online, face to face, and by phone.  We are taking on new areas of research such as how to help families coping with child heart disease and how to deal with the poor sleep that seriously damages the cardiovascular system.

Finally, there are many practical problems in running institutions that aim to help people. It was the focus of three of my books, and since writing them I’ve learned a lot more as President of Drummond Street Services (a non-governmental family-services agency). I’ve found all too often that what sounds good in the lab doesn’t always work in practice.This doesn’t mean that we should neglect research – on the contrary, it shows that we must research the best, most practical ways to institute changes that work in practice.