Meet our Researchers - Finding the Answers that help ISCRR make a difference

MEET... Professor Jennie Ponsford

Professor Jennie Ponsford has been trying to improve patient outcomes for road accident survivors for 20 years and has a lot to show for it. From demonstrating that patients need to be funded for more than one year following trauma to introducing the concept of community-based rehabilitation, where the rehab takes place in real-life situations, Professor Ponsford still possesses the same passion as she did when she first entered the research world. When she forces herself to have some down time, she finds it taking trips with her family and on the golf course.

TITLE: Director of the Monash-Epworth Rehabilitation Research Centre and Professor of Neuropsychology at Monash University
DEPARTMENT: School of Psychology & Psychiatry
CAMPUS: Clayton & Epworth

Professor Jennie Ponsford is one of over 80 researchers who make up the ISCRR research network.

How long have you worked for Monash?I started working for Monash in 1999, so 13 years now. During my PhD in the late 1980s, I became interested in research. Monash approached me to set up a doctoral program in neuropsychology and research then became a defined part of my role as we set up the Monash-Epworth Rehabilitation Research Centre. It's always been agreed that I would spend time at both campuses.

Where did you do prior to starting at Monash?I studied a Bachelor of Arts, with honours in Psychology followed by a Masters in Clinical Neuropsychology. It was the first time the course had run in Australia. When I graduated, there were no jobs in neuropsychology in Melbourne! So I worked as a neuropsychologist in a rehabilitation centre in Sydney for a while. It was there that I discovered how easy it is to get stuck in just assessing patients in acute hospital settings - rehabilitation allows you to do so much more.

I returned to Melbourne and soon started work at the Epworth (formerly Bethesda Rehabilitation Research Centre) where I was Head of the Psychology Department. This was when the TAC had reached an agreement to set up a head injury research program and the accident compensation system had come in. I was appointed as the neuropsychologist on the team and helped develop the program. We began to examine the outcomes of our patients in order to better understand the needs of transport accident survivors. The funding was slow to start with, but eventually the longitudinal outcome study grew into what it is today.

What attracted you to mental health research?I've always been interested in working with people and in medical things, especially learning about the brain. It's interesting because we still don't really know that much about the brain! My lifelong passion is to better understand how people recover from brain injury. I get to work with a lot of young people in the prime of their life. It's a positive thing to be working with people who are moving forward and because they are young, you have the opportunity to remain involved with them over many years.

What do you like best about your role?At the end of the day, even though I'm an academic and researcher, I love to work with patients. The second thing I love is that I have the opportunity to mentor a lot of students and junior researchers. I get a lot of satisfaction from the ability to span both university and clinical roles, I have the chance to make a difference to clinical outcomes, and carry out research that will make a difference - they are my main motivations.

First job?Worked in Safeway as a check-out chick! It motivated me to go to university!

Worst job?Packing socks in a sock packing factory in Richmond.

What research/projects are you currently working on and what does it involve?A long-standing grant from the TAC became a three-year VNI project grant, and now another three-year grant which ISCRR is managing.
It is a large set of projects. They are longitudinal outcome studies which started in the 90s. We invite patients to follow up with our doctors at one, two, three, five, ten and 20 years post-injury. The project is designed to establish what their outcomes are: how they function day to day, what their level of independence is, their relationships, recreation, psychological health, illnesses and cognitive or behavioural changes experienced. We ask their relatives many of the same questions.

Over the years, we have found problems to be prominent and as a result of this, sub-studies have been developed that focus on certain issues in depth, such as fatigue, psychiatric disorders and substance use.

We also try and understand the factors that predict outcomes; we're looking at the effects of age and cultural background and certain genetic factors on recovery and outcome.

With further funding from the NHMRC we are also developing and evaluating treatments for certain problems, such as psychiatric disorders and fatigue.

What was the most fulfilling piece of research you have complete?It was/is the research project I am involved in that has looked at the fatigue and sleep difficulties suffered by patients following trauma. Fatigue is one of the most limiting factors affecting the lifestyle of people with brain injury. We began by examining suitable measures and causative factors. I had the opportunity to work at Monash with several sleep specialists, enabling in depth studies of sleep disturbance as well. This has been, followed by trialling of treatments. In another study funded by TAC, we are finding significant positive effects on fatigue and sleepiness with light therapy. It is extremely satisfying to get positive results.

How is your research benefitting WorkSafe and the TAC?Over the years, projects I've been involved in have enabled me to advise the TAC on their policies, based on the research findings.
Going back to the 80s, the TAC had the view that rehabilitation only occurred in first year after injury. Now, we've demonstrated that it is a very long-term view, and that they can have a huge impact on that. When there was only one work trial people were going back to work too quickly, and then finding themselves unemployed in the long-term. We found that if you fund support for subsequent work trials for survivors, they have a greater chance of remaining employed long term, so the TAC changed its policy.

The TAC has also come to understand that the psychological side of recovery also makes a big difference to people's outcomes and that long-term support may be needed in this area. Translating therapy gains from hospital to the home presents another challenge. We were the first to introduce the concept of community based rehabilitation. In the 90s, there was this belief that all treatment and rehab had to take place in the hospital. We demonstrated the benefits of doing things like speech therapy in the community, for example in the pub, in real life situations so that therapy could have more lasting gains.

The TAC is now convinced that this is the right way to treat. It's been a long journey but they and we have come a long way!

What is your favourite thing to do on the weekend?I must admit, I am a complete workaholic! I spend any spare time with my husband and two beautiful daughters and we travel a lot - I am lucky to get to go to many overseas conferences. Occasionally, I really enjoy golf and skiing. I regularly exercise, which I love and I also enjoy the theatre.

What is the best piece of advice you've been given, and what would you give?Remain involved and engaged in the clinical world so that the research is meaningful and translated. I am totally committed to translating findings into clinical practice.

And I try to live by, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.