Changing behaviours for better health

HRB Research Leader, Dr Molly Byrne, talks to Claire O Connell about how she got started on her research career and where to next.

Dr Molly Byrne, HRB Research Leader
Dr Molly Byrne, HRB Research Leader

HRB Research Leader Dr Molly Byrne of NUI Galway is looking at how to best support people in behaviours that promote health, and she in turn credits the HRB with giving her the time and resources to search for the evidence.

Developing skills 

A psychology graduate from Trinity College Dublin, Dr Byrne started her career in psychology services, but she felt drawn to research. As a stepping stone back into academia, she did a Masters in Health Psychology in NUI Galway, which ignited her interest in applying psychology in health.

'That has been relevant to my work ever since', she says.

It soon became clear to Byrne that she would need a PhD to start building her research career, so she went for - and got - the 'fantastic opportunity' of a HRB Health Services Research Fellowship in NUI Galway.

'It was a brilliant scheme because it paid you research expenses and a really decent salary relative to a student scholarship', recalls Dr Byrne. 'The focus was on developing the research skills of the person, and I did my PhD on secondary prevention of heart disease - exercise, diet, medicine adherence - in people attending primary care'.

One of the highlights of her PhD was a workshop on randomised controlled trials.

'I became aware of training in Oxford and there was no equivalent in Ireland at the time', says Dr Byrne. 'So I contacted the HRB and they supported me to attend that week-long training, and I still look back on it as one of the most valuable and enriching training experiences I have had'.

Moving to leadership 

As Dr Byrne moved into post-doctoral and lectureship positions at NUI Galway, the HRB continued to support her research, including a project on sexual counselling and rehabilitation for people with coronary heart disease. Since then, Dr Byrne has received a HRB Research Leader Award and recently founded the Health Behaviour Change Research Group at NUI Galway.

The HRB Research Leader Awards seek to address strategic gaps and leadership capacity in population health and health services research in Ireland. In Dr Byrne’s case it will give her the time and resources to focus on health psychology interventions in health promotion, chronic disease and primary care, she explains. 

'Thanks to this award I have been relieved of all teaching duties and I am now full-time research', she says. 'And over the next five years I will build up pillars of research in behaviours relevant to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and primary care - I will be reviewing the literature, engaging with service providers and policy makers and developing interventions to change behaviour in health services and public health'.

Diabetes and heart disease - research for healthy behaviours 

Two chronic conditions that Dr Byrne currently has in her sights are diabetes and heart disease. She’s involved in a project with Dr Sean Dinneen at NUI Galway that’s looking to encourage positive health behaviours in young adults with type 1 diabetes. 

'This is a particularly sensitive age group - once they hit 18 they may be moving away to college and starting jobs and their behaviours can change', says Dr Byrne. 'We also know from our research here in Galway that this age group has low attendance at hospital clinics, and a big factor is that they find the hospital setting one they don’t want to be in'.

The NUI Galway researchers are now collaborating with youth mental health organisation Jigsaw to work with young people in developing straightforward but tailored and effective interventions. 'Ultimately it might involve setting up online peer supports to promote self management, and it might look at changing times and locations of clinics to have them in a more primary care setting such as Jigsaw', explains Dr Byrne.

She is also continuing her work in cardiovascular disease, again looking to identify the changes that are likely to make a difference to patients.

'From a health services perspective it might be about teaching interventions to practice nurses, maybe enabling them to communicate more effectively about smoking', she says. 'And from a public health perspective, encouraging people to take more exercise as a behaviour has a wide-ranging positive impact on heart health and beyond, but the important part is making it happen'.

Self-sufficiency on the horizon

Over the coming years, Dr Byrne aims to develop a strong core of researchers in health psychology and evidence-based interventions for change, and she is particularly channeling energy into engaging with stakeholders and patients themselves.

'This is research that cannot be done in an academic bubble', she says. 'It is extremely applied, it is very translational, it’s only useful if it can be done and has an impact'.

And after five years she plans for the Health Behaviour Change Research Group to be self-sustaining:

'One of the luxuries of the award is that I now have the time to apply for other sources of funding, particularly in Ireland and Europe, to build up this programme of research into the longer term'.

She credits the HRB for supporting health psychology and ensuring that the relevant research skills are put in place.

'I can see the wisdom in what they are doing - when there are people who are getting on board and promoting their mission of better health delivery, it is good to foster that', she says. 'And the HRB has shown great respect for health psychology, that they have not been narrow in their definition of health. That is a real credit to them'.