Enhanced surgery to reactivate the muscles in tetraplegics' hands and housing that allows people with disabilities to live independently are just two of the transformative benefits to come out of a five-year program set up for Victorians affected by brain and spinal cord injuries.
As well improving the daily lives of thousands of people, the $20 million Neurotrauma Research Program also has the potential to save millions of dollars annually in government expenditure, according to a recent independent review.
Professor Alex Collie, Chief Executive of the Institute for Safety, Compensation and Recovery Research (ISCRR), said that as well as the high personal and health costs resulting from brain trauma or spinal cord injury, there were substantial economic costs.
"Depending on the severity, a single case of someone seriously injured in a transport accident can total millions of dollars in health care alone," he said.
ISCRR, a partnership between Monash University, the Transport Accident Commission and WorkSafe Victoria, is leading the research program, which is funded by the TAC.
"The TAC has supported neurotrauma research for many years," Professor Collie said. "We are starting to see the enormous impact this can have on quality of life for people with brain and spinal cord injury."
Each year, 270 new cases of traumatic spinal cord injury and more than 2500 new cases of moderate or severe traumatic brain injury occur in Australia. Transport accidents are the major cause.
The lifetime cost of caring for individuals affected by such accidents range from $2.5 million to $9.5 million but improving people's ability to operate independently can mean a significant reduction to the ongoing cost burden.
The wide-ranging neurotrauma program involves researchers from Monash University, the University of Melbourne, Deakin University, La Trobe University, and healthcare providers like Alfred Health and Austin Health. They are engaged in more than 40 projects looking at issues as diverse as treatments and rehabilitation, greater independence for people who require long-term care, and new technologies.
Projects already implemented include the University of Melbourne research around pioneering nerve transfer surgery at Austin Health that helps people with tetraplegia, by reactivating muscles to restore movement in patients' hands and arms.
Austin Health plastic surgeon Natasha van Zyl said the significant gain was greater independence, "These patients lead difficult lives; most need help with daily activities. Any measure that provides more movement will also lead to greater independence. I see patients being able to manage more tasks on their own and I know this research is truly changing lives," Ms van Zyl said.
This is also the goal for Monash University medical and design researchers who have been working with the Residential Independent Pty Ltd (RIPL) Property Trust, another TAC funded initiative, to develop accessible accommodation for people with neurotrauma.
Accommodation must to be tailored to individual needs, and flexible enough to adapt as they change, says lead researcher Libby Callaway. "This research does not just inform the building of bricks, it helps people rebuild their lives."
"For people who have had a Traumatic Brain Injury rehabilitation is a lifeline," Associate Professor Natasha Lannin from La Trobe University and Alfred Health said.
Associate Professor Natasha Lannin has been working as a researcher based at the Alfred Health ABI Rehabilitation Centre at Caulfield Hospital. "This Service presents a unique opportunity, in a purpose-built environment, for research to underpin and advance clinical practice. It's a powerful combination that will give patients the best chance of meaningful recovery in the years ahead," she said.
An independent review of the Neurotrauma Research Program, conducted in late 2014 by Strategic Project Partners, found that it would have a profound impact on Victorians affected by injury. It also concluded that four of the major research projects would deliver twenty times return on TAC's financial investment by improving recovery times, providing the most efficient services and increasing independence.
"Crucially the review has concluded this body of work will help the TAC meet its primary objective to improve the wellbeing of people injured in transport accidents," Professor Collie said.
There would be widespread gains from the program, he said.
"What we are doing in Victoria will have benefits way beyond the TAC. The impact of this research will benefit seriously injured people nationally and internationally."