Priya Iyer’s PhD research helps spinal cord injury patients manage cardiovascular health risks

Research aims to empower patients to make informed food choices

For Priya Iyer, receiving her Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Health Science from the University of Wollongong (UOW) on 2 November will be the realisation of a lifelong goal.

“I knew that I wanted to pursue my PhD early on in my studies, and for many years this had been my ultimate dream and goal. However, when I had my daughter, my priorities changed – at the time I thought I wouldn’t be able to juggle my studies with being a mother.”

“I started my PhD when my daughter was in her teens, knowing that she wouldn’t need me quite as much as before. She was studying for her HSC while I was working on my PhD, so we’d meet in the kitchen for study breaks where we’d just have a laugh over some snacks and destress”

“I am incredibly lucky to have had Professors Eleanor Beck and Karen Walton as my PhD supervisors. They were like premium GPS or navigators who made sure the journey to my PhD destination was rewarding.”

“Professor Beck was an amazing supervisor with extensive knowledge. She always answered all my questions in a jiffy. Professor Walton said that it was absolutely okay to end up with more questions than answers upon completing a PhD.”

Priya works as a Professional Leader in Dietetics at Royal Rehab, a specialist rehabilitation service providing state-wide rehabilitation services to individuals with traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury.

“When I decided to pursue further study, I found that I was in luck – one of the priorities of the organisation I work for is to support research and knowledge dissemination”

The focus of Priya’s PhD has been on identifying opportunities to improve heart health in people with chronic spinal injury, as poor heart health is one of the major risk factors for mortality in this group.

“I was driven to do a PhD to make necessary changes to clinical practice and thereby improve patient outcomes. As a dietitian, you educate and provide information to empower patients to make informed food choices to prevent and/or manage several conditions.”

“One of my patients inspired my research many years ago. He said, “Since my injury, I have lost control over everything. Food and eating are the only things I have control over. I don’t want this taken away from me. I want to enjoy meals like I used to and not think.” These words provided a renewed focus for my PhD to put nutrition care and dining into the rehabilitation model of care.”

Priya’s research looked at the experience of people with spinal cord injury in rehabilitation facilities.

“Food and eating are an intrinsic part of our lives and a healthy diet offers a holistic approach to overall health. It is time to re-imagine and redefine food services, especially in rehabilitation settings. We need to stop thinking of food services as institutional catering and start thinking of patient meals as an element of a holistic care plan.”

“In order to ensure a more human approach, my research looked at the impact of eating practices on health, with a vision to lobby support for a health promoting model of food service delivery that can improve heart health. We then piloted the Mediterranean diet menu as a health promotion strategy in rehabilitation.”

“While rehabilitation after spinal cord injury is aimed at restoring function and independence, it is important to note that food and nutrition extend beyond providing the fuel for recovery care.”

“My thesis highlights the disconnect between what we know about the cardiovascular disease burden in patients suffering from spinal cord injury, and what is being done to address this in a real-world setting.

“The thesis reaffirms the need to consider a ‘whole person’ approach to rehabilitation care as a health optimisation strategy.”

“My thesis also suggests that food service in spinal rehabilitation is a core contextual element and should be considered as part of the rehabilitation model of care to deliver timely, targeted nutrition care.”

/Public Release. This material from the originating organization/author(s) may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).View in full here.

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