Research excellence: Helping children in need

Published: Wednesday 4th November 2015

Professor of Occupational Therapy and Head of School of Allied Health, Christine Imms, focuses on improving the implementation of research for children with cerebral palsy. "I get very excited when there is data to play with – this is the part where the answers come together – not always the answers I hoped for, but intriguing and informative none-the-less."

My background

I am an Occupational Therapist, graduating from the South Australian Institute of Technology in 1983. Between 1983 and 1999 my clinical practice spanned rehabilitation and community services provided within schools, children’s homes and acute inpatient intensive care units and wards (paediatric, general medicine and psychiatric) in three Australian states and in British Columbia, Canada. These years sparked and developed a commitment to an evidence-based approaches to practice where success for clients stemmed from research-informed interventions. In 1995, we moved our family to British Columbia where I worked as an occupational therapist and department supervisor at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital and completed my Master of Science in Rehabilitation Science. In 2000, we returned to Australia and I took up two roles: an academic position at La Trobe University, and a research role at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. In 2008 I completed my doctorate.

Since 2011, through my joint positions of inaugural Head of Allied Health and Professor of Occupational Therapy at ACU, I have built, from a staff of two, a four-discipline (occupational therapy, speech pathology, public health and social work), five campus, four state school with approximately 90 staff and just under 2000 students, including Australia’s only national occupational therapy training program.

In terms of knowledge generation, I have over 75 publications and secured approximately $6.5M in competitive grant funding including being third chief investigator on a NHMRC centre of excellence, leading a NHMRC Partnership project, and a Department of Health funded multi-university randomised trial evaluating the effectiveness of a simulated occupational therapy professional practice experience.

In 2015, with colleague Professor Peter Wilson, I established a unique research centre: the Centre for Disability and Development Research (CeDDR) that focuses on enabling children, whose lives are complicated by disability or chronic medical conditions, and their families, to meet the challenges of healthy growth and development, and to provide opportunities that will help ensure they reach their full potential across the whole lifespan.

What led you to choose this career path?

I chose to become an occupational therapist because it involved working directly with people, and was focused on enabling people at disadvantage due to health conditions, injury, or circumstances, to do the activities that are important to them. I chose to be an occupational therapy researcher because as an experienced clinician working with children and their families, I was dissatisfied with what was known about how to engage in therapy for optimal outcomes and wanted to contribute new knowledge to the field and guide practice. My motivations for everything I do relate to engaging with others with the goal of promoting optimal experiences for people to engage in the activities of importance to them.

What are you working on at the moment?

  1. Having just established the new research centre with colleague Professor Peter Wilson: Centre for Disability and Development Research: Enabling diversity across the lifespan (CeDDR), we are building our research program, establishing collective projects and publications. CeDDR is a collaborative that draws expertise and builds engagement through collaboration with families and people with cerebral palsy, with clinicians, researchers and other stakeholders across Australia and the international community. Our key international partners are colleagues at CanChild Centre for Childhood Disability Research (McMaster University); Radboud University’s Behavioural Science Institute; The Center for Cerebral Palsy Research at Teachers College, Columbia University; and Jonkoping’s CHILD Research Centre. CeDDR has as one key element a
  2. One research team I lead is in the final stages of data collection for an NHMRC funded Partnership Project: Providing the best service at the best time: Cerebral palsy check up.  This has been a two-year knowledge translation study that aims to enhance the capacity of occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech pathologists to be responsive to new research evidence in their practice, and to embed routine standardised assessments of children with cerebral palsy with the aim of minimising the contractures and deformities these young people often experience. This study involves organisations that provide services to children with cerebral palsy in SA, Vic, Tas and NSW.
  3. Another research team I lead is in the midst of recruitment and data collection for two concurrent, multi-centre randomised controlled trials for children with cerebral palsy. The first trial involves children aged less than 2 years and the second, those aged 5 to 15years. These three year intervention studies will test whether we can reduce contracture of the wrist and hand by the provision of rigid wrist hand orthoses (also called splints).  When children experience hand contracture and deformity their ability to use their hands to do things is limited – this can affect their ability to develop independence in self-care, to do school work and to take part in their preferred leisure and recreational activities. These studies are being conducted in WA, Vic and NSW.
  4. A third research team I lead is investigating the conceptual basis and measurement of ‘participation’ as an outcome and a process in disability research so that we can design effective interventions to support participation. By participation we mean being able to take part in the activities you want to, need to, or have to do; and, when you are there (i.e. attending the activity), being able to be engaged or involved – that is being included, motivated, focused and/or connected with others in the same activity.  Our Australian team collaborates in this work internationally, with others from Sweden, Canada, The Netherlands, USA, Sth Africa, Taiwan and Portugal.
  5. A fourth team I lead is involved in conducting a multi-centre randomised controlled trial investigating the effectiveness and efficiency of replacing a portion of professional practice education of occupational therapy students with a simulated professional practice experience. The simulated experience is highly structured to meet the student learning goals and occurs within the university, while a traditional placement occurs in a health or human services setting in the community. We are leading this Department of Health funded trial which will include ACU, Deakin University, The University of Sydney, Curtin University of Technology, University of South Australia, and Newcastle University occupational therapy programs.
  6. I am also actively involved in supervision of research students. Over the past 15 years I have supervised 28 honours and higher degree students (19 completed, 9 current).These students typically undertake research that informs the field of childhood disability and/or participation.

What do you enjoy most about your research?

As you can see from ‘what I am doing’ I enjoy working in partnership – with those who the research is about and for (i.e. the children, adolescents and families), as well as with students, other researchers and clinicians. I love to think about how to solve problems in research and to discuss ways of thinking with others.  I get very excited when there is data to play with – this is the part where the answers come together – not always the answers I hoped for, but intriguing and informative none-the-less. I like to write, although this is often the activity that gets ‘squeezed’ in a busy schedule, but writing papers is mostly fun for me – grants, less fun, but necessary. So, pretty much all of it I guess.

How does your research make a difference in the community?

I try to focus on research issues that are directly pertinent to practice and that the “answer” can therefore be used to change or confirm practice. For example, along with colleagues (often very clever post-graduate students), I have been involved in studies of the effectiveness of occupational therapy intervention to improve the ability of children with cerebral palsy to use their hands to play and work and with designing and building new assessment tools for use in cerebral palsy practice. These interventions and assessments are now in use. In another example, The ‘Best service, best time’ project is a knowledge translation study: it will embed processes and practices within organisations that are intended to be sustained at the end of the project to provide ongoing support of effective evidence-based approaches to practice – this means, helping clinicians to choose the right intervention at the right time for a child with cerebral palsy.