Featured News Building healthier, stronger Torres Strait communities from within

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Wed, 10 May 2023

Building healthier, stronger Torres Strait communities from within


A James Cook University-based health research team will collaborate with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the fight against chronic disease.

The Healthy Ageing Research Team (HART) has embarked on a two-year project with communities in the Torres Strait region to co-design both individual health screening tools and community-level interventions.

It will be funded by a $470,000 National Health and Medical Research Council Medical Research Future Fund grant.

HART researcher and clinical dietitian, Mel Kilburn, is completing her PhD on the project. She said the genesis of the project – Strong Communities, Strong Health: co-designing chronic disease prevention in the Torres Strait - came from the communities themselves.

“Communities in the Torres Strait have expressed a need for these tools and will play a central role in developing these and other strategies. There will be ongoing consultation with communities at every stage of the project,” said Ms Kilburn.

She said there is limited data on diet and none on physical activity habits in adult residents, despite the escalating rate of chronic diseases in the region, including type 2 diabetes, heart and kidney diseases, and dementia.

“This crucial knowledge gap is partly due to the geographic isolation of many communities, as well as the lack of culturally appropriate health assessment tools,” said Ms Kilburn.

“This, in turn, has inhibited the development of sustainable health programs that are relevant and acceptable within communities.”

Phase one of the project – the co-design and validation of app-based diet and exercise screening tools – is already well advanced. The apps are now ready for piloting, drafted with the assistance of community feedback.

“Unlike standard screening tools, they include questions about the intake of traditional foods found in the region, as well as standard supermarket fare and reference cultural activities, such as dancing, among physical exercise options,” said Ms Kilburn.

Data gleaned via the apps will be de-identified and used to detect dietary and activity patterns within the Torres Strait, from geographic areas down to individual community trends.

Ms Kilburn said the second phase of the project will map environmental influences on health in the communities and phase three will focus on holding yarning circles in communities to establish their views on what supports good health and ageing.

She said the project will culminate in phase four – a series of co-design workshops with communities to develop strategies to address chronic disease tailored to meet their needs.

“We will sit down with each community to share the findings with their particular community so they can workshop ideas for strategies and programs that support good health,” said Ms Kilburn.


Launched in 2015, the Healthy Ageing Research Team (HART) includes geriatricians, a dietician, physiotherapist, clinical neuropsychologist, clinical psychologist, occupational therapist, exercise physiologist, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers, and PhD and post-doctoral researchers.

Many of the team members work for local health services and have longstanding relationships with Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula communities through their clinical outreach activities.

All share a commitment to improving health systems and healthcare delivery to these communities, particularly to older residents who may require additional health support to stay in their communities.

HART currently has several projects in the region, under the umbrella project, Framework for Healthy Ageing.


Mel Kilburn
E: melissa.kilburn@jcu.edu.au