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Telehealth trial connecting rural kids to better nutrition

HRMI nutrition

A new Hunter Medical Research Institute nutrition project supported by nib foundation will use telehealth technology to bring a dietitian "virtually" into the homes of rural families who need more support to improve eating habits and achieve a healthy weight.

Called Nutrition Connect, the intervention will be delivered by University of Newcastle researchers in the New England region – including Tamworth, Armidale, Inverell and Gunnedah.

Around a quarter of Australian children are overweight or obese, making it a priority health issue, yet only three children's hospitals in NSW offer specialist weight-management services. Regional families not only face waiting lists but the additional barrier of travel.

Trial coordinator and dietitian Amy Ashman says Nutrition Connect will focus on children aged 5 to 11, for whom few specific programs are available.

"There are some good programs for older children but it makes sense to have an earlier intervention," she says. "It's never too early to start forming healthy habits. Younger children can be fussy eaters and afraid to try new things, especially when they don't have the same variety of foods available.

"Kids are surrounded by unhealthy food options and rural kids may be just as sedentary as those living in cities." Nutrition Connect will comprise two intervention groups and a control arm. Resources include two individual telehealth consultations by a dietitian via computer or iPad, access to a purpose-built interactive website, and a monitored Facebook support group where identities remain anonymous. One group will receive additional SMS messaging to support the health promotion.

nib foundation Executive Officer, Amy Tribe, said the telehealth program bridges an identified gap in services in rural areas by helping to improve access for those in more isolated areas to health professionals. "Connecting rural families with dietitians will not only help to improve children's dietary intakes and stabilise their weight, but also lower the burden on families and the healthcare system by reducing the number of families travelling to major metropolitan areas for specialist help," Ms Tribe said.

"The service allows families to stay in the comfort of their home and have one-to-one contact, then its hoped they'll start making changes straight away while they're motivated."

The trial is initially targeting 50 families, with recruitment through the Upper Hunter/ New England region. If effective, the model will be expanded to other regions.