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Rapporteur report

Dr Molly Byrne

30 January 2017

HRB Centre puts science behind plans to change behaviours

Watch Dr Byrne's presentation on You Tube at the link below

Quick summary: 

Getting people and practitioners to change practices could have an impact on health outcomes 

The HRB-supported Health Behaviour Change Research Group is designing interventions using behaviour science tools 

Interventions are being developed for cardiac sexual health, hand hygiene, supporting young people with Type 1 diabetes and many other areas. 

Human behaviour is complex, for sure, but changing it could hold the key to tackling a range of health issues. As Dr Molly Byrne pointed out to the HRB 30 Conference in Dublin Castle, behaviour change is central to tackling many leading causes of mortality, including some cancers, respiratory conditions and cardiovascular problems, and behaviour is key to managing chronic illness.  

But why, given the importance of getting healthcare practitioners, patients and public alike to change behaviours, are studies sometimes driven by the ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’ principle?  

Dr Byrne, a Senior Lecturer in Health Psychology and HRB Research Leader in the School of Psychology at NUI Galway, believes that bringing behavioural science in can bring benefit, but it needs to be systematically applied when designing and evaluating interventions.

Dr Byrne drew the audience’s attention to recent guidelines issued by NICE, which emphasise the need to use evidence-based strategy, to train practitioners in evidence-based skills and competencies and to target multiple levels: individuals, communities and populations. 

Some behaviour change interventions work – such as a HRB-funded study led by Prof Andrew Murphy and involving Dr Byrne, which developed and tested an intervention for people with coronary heart disease. It worked: the intervention group had reduced hospital admissions over an 18-month period. 

But not every such study has success:  ‘For every successful intervention, there are multiple unsuccessful interventions’, said Dr Byrne. ‘So why don’t we know more?’ 

That may be down to measuring the wrong outcomes, not basing interventions on existing evidence or researchers assuming they know which interventions will work, she noted. 

Thanks to her HRB Leadership Award, Dr Byrne has set up the Health Behaviour Change Research Group, which formed in 2014.

‘We are aiming to improve population health by applying behavioural science’, she said.   The group is developing interventions across a range of areas, with a focus on changing the behaviour of health practitioners.  One is the CHARMS intervention, now being piloted in two hospitals in Ireland, which promotes the delivery of sexual counselling in cardiac rehabilitation, which took staff knowledge, skills and confidence levels into consideration and designed the intervention accordingly. 

The group is also looking at other challenges where behaviour change could make a difference, including hand hygiene in hospitals, medication adherence, promoting physical activity and supporting young people with Type 1 diabetes. 

‘We are using these types of systematic methods and approaches throughout a whole range of areas’, said Dr Byrne. ‘We want to lead the behavioural science and research agenda. Our bread-and-butter work is developing and evaluating…we want to advance the science in this area and build capacity’.  

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