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Exercise in aged-care could save Australia $120m each year

5 December 2018
Using research to challenge the healthcare system
As our population ages, allied health professionals are urging exercise therapy to be funded in aged-care facilities. Dr Jennie Hewitt is one such advocate, using her work and research to drive change within the sector.

Jennifer Hewitt, Physiotherapist and University of Sydney PhD graduate.

Jennie Hewitt, who has been working as a physiotherapist since 1989 and in the aged care sector since 2008, spends her days helping older persons to live more active lives.

She said when she entered into the aged care sector, she was really excited to bring her experience in sports physiotherapy and apply it to people who were functioning at possibly 20 to 30 percent of their potential.

From very early on, using evidence-based exercise programs Jenny demonstrated how she could improve the mobility of her patients and was motivated to see the flow on effects this had on their quality of life and overall wellbeing.

She was shocked to discover that such exercise programs were not funded under the current Aged Care Funding Instrument (ACFI), and worse than that, they were actually discouraged.

Jennie found herself instead providing treatments that for the rest of the physiotherapy world, would have been outdated 20 or 30 years ago. At that point she decided she needed to either get out of the sector altogether or she needed to try and change it.

Driven by her determination to influence policy, Jennie completed her PhD from the University of Sydney in July 2018, after carrying out a 5-year clinical trial to test the effectiveness of strength and balance training on falls and quality of life in residential aged care facilities.

Jennie Hewitt with one of her patients at Wommin Bay, Kingscliff. Photography: Scott Powick

Given that falls cost Australia's health economy more than any other form of trauma, including motor vehicle accidents, the trial also incorporated a cost-benefit analysis to evaluate the economic benefits.

The results of the trial, which have since been internationally published, demonstrated a 55% reduction in falls by people who participated in the exercise program and a projected cost saving of $120 million per year for the Australian health economy.

Jennie told the Australian Ageing Agenda, the participants also benefited in other ways from their improved physical performance. “People were telling us that the program was changing their lives. Some were newly able to get in and out of the car and go out with their family. You could see them walking tall and proud when they came in."

After presenting her findings at the 2018 Faculty of Health Sciences Dean's Future Health Forum, Jennie's research is now being used to inform policymakers on effective therapies for older Australians.

Jennie’s research has led to exercise programs being incorporated into funded physiotherapy services in the ACFI .

Read about the 2018 Faculty of Health Sciences Dean's Future Health Forum online at HelloCare.