Pop-up labs have been transformed to encourage healthy lifestyles and teach communities about how to stay healthy during lock-down and beyond.

HealthLAB, a Menzies School of Health Research (Menzies) initiative, is a pop-up lab where you can have an interactive tour of your health by taking your own health measures and learning what they mean for you now and for your future health.

When COVID-19 travel restrictions were announced, the Menzies HealthLAB team had an innovative approach to ensuring the provision of health education in remote Northern Territory communities by re-purposing new technologies and creating hands-on health promotion packages to send to communities.

Associate Professor Heidi Smith-Vaughan, who leads the HealthLAB program, says it is an exciting time for the team.

“This challenge has inspired us to look at repurposing a range of new technologies. For example, we are working with Professor Deborah Richards at Macquarie University to produce conversational avatars, which will enable teens to engage with a virtual figure to discuss what they’ve learnt about healthy lifestyles.

“We are also working with the companies IBM and KWP! to develop a platform that uses AI (Artificial Intelligence) and ML (Machine learning) modelling to reinforce health messaging in a fun and engaging way.

“Due to COVID-19, we had to reimagine ways to keep the flow of health messages going. And what we’re doing is really exciting. Our trainees who have returned to community due to COVID-19 are still delivering messages. This is providing a whole new set of opportunities for these staff as well as keeping the HealthLAB messages flowing.”

HealthLAB is also working with the Moriarty Foundation through its programs Indi Kindi and John Moriarty Football to get health promotion packages to their staff in community. Staff are then being trained over video conferencing about how to deliver the packages while adhering to physical distancing restrictions.

Associate Professor Smith-Vaughan says it is more important now than ever to ensure communities can access healthcare and education.

“Right now, during this pandemic, a lot of people are really frightened, so it’s important that clear, consistent messages are getting out to the community. That everyone recognises that we’re all in this together and here’s the set of ways that’s going to get us through this.

“Through the packages, conversational avatars and AI technology, communities can continue to learn how to make lifestyle changes to prevent chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease that are affecting more and more of us and earlier in our lives.

“But all our other health issues haven’t gone away. We’re dealing with these on top of a pandemic. Chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease are affecting more and more of us earlier in our lives. Chronic diseases cause 60 per cent of the disease burden and around 90 per cent of deaths in Australia.

“With our rapidly changing climate, extreme weather events will have a considerable impact on the health of people in regional and remote Australia. We are also now talking to people about how to minimise heat stress, which is particularly dangerous for people with chronic medical conditions.

“Other health issues that will also become more important include managing lung disease with bushfire smoke, managing potential rises in mosquito-borne diseases, improving food hygiene to avoid food-borne diseases and such areas to support people to stay healthy in our rapidly changing environment.”

There have been nearly 11,000 participants since HealthLAB started in 2014.

HealthLAB’s key messages for a healthy lifestyle:

  • Don’t smoke
  • Be active
  • Eat healthy
  • Don’t drink too much alcohol

Especially during this pandemic:

  • Maintain physical distancing
  • Wash your hands
  • Don’t touch your face
  • Get the flu jab