Paediatric pioneer recognised for work with weight issues in children

Dr Yvonne Anderson, from the Liggins Institute, has been awarded the New Zealand L’Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science 2019 Fellowship.

When Taranaki-based paediatrician and clinical researcher Dr Yvonne Anderson returned to New Zealand from the UK, she was struck by the number of children she was seeing affected by weight issues.

She knew she wanted to support these children and their families, but also knew the conventional clinic model she had observed in the UK wouldn’t work for those who were over-represented in New Zealand’s obesity statistics. So with the support of Taranaki DHB, the Liggins Institute, the University of Auckland and Sport Taranaki, she set about creating Whānau Pakari, an acclaimed community-based, family-centred programme that’s gone on to make a real difference in children’s lives.

The Whānau Pakari programme has provided Dr Anderson a basis for her research, and in turn the programme has become a significant tool in the quest to curb child and adolescent obesity in Taranaki, a mission that not only benefits the lives of those directly involved, but also their families.

It’s this unwavering dedication to making meaningful change that has seen Dr Anderson awarded the prestigious L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science (FWIS) New Zealand fellowship for 2019.

Participants who attended more than 70 percent of the programme’s sessions have had significant reductions in BMI adjusted for age and gender over time. And overall, the children’s quality of life has improved.

Dr Yvonne Anderson Liggins Institute

Dr Anderson says she was humbled to receive the accolade for her research.

“The L’Oréal-UNESCO fellowship is wonderful recognition of the whole Whānau Pakari team’s hard work over many years. It has certainly been a team effort,” she says.

That work has involved building a programme that focusses on the wider family in addressing weight issues. The name Whānau Pakari was gifted to the programme by a prominent Māori community member. It means “healthy self-assured families that are fully active”.

“We started with a healthy lifestyle programme and we’ve seen some really encouraging results,” Dr Anderson says. “Participants who attended more than 70% of the programme’s sessions have had significant reductions in BMI adjusted for age and gender over time. And overall, the children’s quality of life has improved.”

National data showed there was an over-representation of some groups with weight issues, particularly those from most deprived households, Māori and Pacific children, and there were many barriers to accessing services.

“So we’ve gone on a deeper journey of learning how to achieve equity in healthcare services for children and their families, and how to provide care in a non-judgemental, non-stigmatising way so these services are accessible and appropriate for all,” Dr Anderson says.

The $25,000 grant that comes with the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship has come at a critical point in Whānau Pakari’s evolution, as Dr Anderson and her team work to create a digital platform for a healthy lifestyle check in the home. This work is turning heads internationally, as others try to find ways to provide effective community-based intervention programmes. The fellowship will fund research into understanding expectations of caregivers and children around health data consent and storage, which will immediately inform the new application build.

L’Oréal New Zealand Country Manager Aurelie de Cremiers says the company is delighted to support the vital work of Dr Anderson and Whānau Pakari.

“The L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science programme has been celebrating women researchers around the world since 1998,” she says. “We’re dedicated to supporting these women and their work and we hope it inspires more women to consider the sciences as an outstanding career option.

“We’re also looking forward to seeing more of Whānau Pakari’s crucial work in empowering and supporting Kiwi families.”

New Zealand has the third highest obesity rate in the OECD (30.7 percent of the population), after the United States and Mexico. About 10 percent of New Zealand children aged two to 14 years experience obesity (an estimated 94,000 children), and children living in most deprived neighbourhoods are twice as likely to experience obesity than those from the least deprived areas.

Dr Anderson say she’s committed to building on her research to assist Whānau Pakari’s aim to share knowledge that helps families achieve healthy lifestyle change.

“I believe all children deserve the best start in life, and everyone has a role in supporting families to achieve this for their kids.”

Dr Anderson will be presented with her fellowship award alongside four Australian scientists in Sydney on 14 November. A local ceremony honouring her achievement will then be held at Auckland’s SO Hotel on 19 November.

About Whānau Pakari

About Whānau Pakari: Whānau Pakari is a family-based, multi-disciplinary assessment and intervention programme that operates in the Taranaki community. It has de-medicalised the process of accessing healthcare, taking health services outside hospital walls and into the community. A home-based assessment is undertaken by a healthy lifestyle coordinator. We have removed the paediatrician and dietitian hospital appointments without compromising quality of care, addressing weight-related comorbidities, with continued support from these health workers. Weekly activity sessions in the community are offered by a multi-disciplinary team.

Whānau Pakari aims to provide non-judgemental, non-stigmatising care, ensuring access and appropriateness of services for all. We do not talk about obesity, weight loss, or diets, rather healthy lifestyle change, and how to make persistent changes.

The research team have, to date, undertaken a randomised clinical trial, economic evaluation, qualitative research, family focus group interviews, process evaluation, and are following children longitudinally to five years, in order to understand whether the programme works better than the previous conventional models of care.

Currently the team are working on a healthy lifestyle check IT application for Whānau Pakari, that could be embedded into other community-based intervention programmes. This will ensure screening for weight-related comorbidities occurs within the community, individualising care, potentially saving costs, and linking centres to understand what works in terms of multi-disciplinary intervention programmes. This work is gaining international interest, given the lack of effective community-based intervention programmes globally.

The Whānau Pakari programme is a collaboration between the Taranaki District Health Board, Sport Taranaki, and the Liggins Institute, the University of Auckland.

Media contact

Nicola Shepheard | Media adviser
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