Physiotherapy: Dr. Adrienne Harvey

Dr Adrienne Harvey is a Paediatric Physiotherapist currently researching dystonia in children with cerebral palsy. She is supported by her Melbourne Children's Campus Career Development Award.


Understanding dystonia in children with cerebral palsy

A background in physiotherapy led Dr Adrienne Harvey to a deeply fulfilling career as a clinical researcher in Developmental Medicine at the Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (MCRI). In 2015 she was awarded a Melbourne Children’s Campus Career Development Award, which allows her to focus on her research into dystonia in children with cerebral palsy alongside her role in Developmental Medicine.

After completing a Masters of Physiotherapy at the University of Melbourne in 1998, Adrienne discovered her passion for research into cerebral palsy and childhood disability through her role coordinating the rehabilitation of children with cerebral palsy who had multilevel orthopaedic surgery at the RCH.

Ten years later, after completing her PhD on the Functional Mobility Scale for children with cerebral palsy  at the University of Melbourne and spending two years in Canada completing a postdoctoral fellowship at CanChild Centre for Childhood Disability Research, Adrienne returned to the RCH/MCRI campus as a research physiotherapist for Developmental Medicine.

Adrienne’s current research, supported by her Melbourne Children’s Campus Career Development Award, is in dystonia in children with cerebral palsy; a movement disorder characterised by involuntary muscle contractions that can cause the child pain and distress and interferes with their function and quality of life.

Dystonia is a disorder that demonstrates just how quickly new research areas can emerge. Adrienne says, “it’s a movement disorder that we have really only recognised more accurately in children with cerebral palsy in the last ten years. In the past children with dystonia were often thought to have spasticity as their primary movement disorder, but we now realise that many have dystonia, and this distinction is very important because dystonia is more difficult to manage effectively and can worsen as the children grow.”

Dystonia has been called “the new black” in cerebral palsy research as groups all over the world turn their research focus to the disorder. Adrienne’s research specifically focuses on ensuring consistent measurement of dystonia using validated tools to assess not only the involuntary muscle movements but also their impact on the child’s function and quality of life. She is also investigating the effectiveness of the currently available medications used by doctors to treat dystonia in children with cerebral palsy.

Adrienne’s career path is an excellent example of how a background in physiotherapy can lead to a diverse professional life. She says, “I’m a physiotherapist by background but I don’t approach my research primarily as a physiotherapist, I approach it as a clinician and researcher who works with children with disabilities. Most of my research involves many different clinicians with a focus on medical management, which isn’t a typical physiotherapy topic.  I work closely with doctors who provide the necessary medical skills and expertise and my skills and expertise are around the research process. In the field of disability research it’s very much a team approach.”

Alongside her research at RCH and MCRI, Adrienne also works one day a week in a private physiotherapy clinic where she specialises in paediatric physiotherapy. She says, “I’m a clinician at heart. Even though the majority of my work is research, I do a little private work in paediatrics on the side to get my clinical fix”.

Adrienne acknowledges the role of her University of Melbourne education in the opportunities and experiences she has had so far in her professional life. “Doing my Masters of Physiotherapy and PhD thorough the University of Melbourne has allowed me to have a very rich and rewarding career and has provided numerous exciting opportunities both locally and internationally,” said Adrienne. With a National Health and Medical Research Council Centre of Excellence grant also supporting her research, Adrienne’s professional future researching and working in the areas she feels passionate about is growing.

“What inspires me is seeing the children benefit from our evidence based management and seeing them participate fully in everyday life. We can’t cure cerebral palsy but we can certainly help to make the lives of children and their families as enjoyable as possible. For me, what I love seeing is kids and their loved ones able to do what they want to do as a family and as individuals,” said Adrienne.