Health researchers recognised for their real-world impact

Three Australian researchers who have achieved real impact in areas as diverse as dental care for Indigenous communities, unintentional river drownings, and young people’s access to healthcare have been honoured in the Sax Institute’s Research Action Awards tonight.

This is the fifth time the Sax Institute has presented the Research Action Awards since setting them up in 2015 to recognise researchers whose work has made a significant impact on health policy, programs or service delivery. Each winner receives a certificate and a prize of $5,000.

Congratulating the winners, Sax Institute CEO Professor Sally Redman said their innovative work demonstrated the power of research to improve the wellbeing of all Australians.

“I’m struck not just by our winners’ focus on delivering high quality research, but by their dedication to making sure their findings result in better health outcomes. All three winners have been determined to see their research make a difference, engaging with health decision makers at every step of the process, often in quite innovative ways,” Professor Redman said.

“In one case, the research design included a policy forum to help ensure that health decision makers were rapidly informed by the findings and in another the researcher worked closely with Indigenous communities to develop approaches that have really made a difference to health. It is really encouraging to see early and mid-career researchers with such talent and commitment to bringing about change.”

The winners were presented with their Awards by Professor Redman and Professor Dame Valerie Beral,  Professor of Epidemiology and Co-Director of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford, at a ceremony in Sydney tonight. The Secretary of NSW Health, Elizabeth Koff, was also a guest speaker at the event, which was attended by around 150 senior policy makers, research leaders, academics and others.

Professor Trish Greenhalgh, Professor of Primary Care Health Services at the University of Oxford, and chair of the independent assessment committee that chose the winners, said she was hugely impressed with the quality of this year’s applications.

“What this demonstrates is the strength and vitality of public health research in Australia. It takes real commitment and resilience not just to conduct a long-term research project but to engage with stakeholders and ensure its integration into policies and programs.”

There is widespread agreement among experts that while research can make a useful contribution to health policy development, many opportunities to use evidence in policy are currently being missed. The Sax Institute set up the Research Action Awards as a further means of delivering on its mission, which is to ‘improve health and wellbeing by driving the use of research in policies, programs and services’.

Research Action Award Winners 2019

Adjunct Associate Professor Kylie Gwynne, Poche Centre for Indigenous Health, University of Sydney – Co-designing and evaluating Indigenous health services

Research Action Award Winner 2019 Kylie Gwynne

Over the past five years, Adjunct Associate Professor Gwynne has led several trailblazing research projects focused on working with Indigenous people and communities in rural and remote regions to design and deliver dental health services. Aboriginal people have significantly higher rates of dental disease compared with other Australians, a problem that is further compounded for those living in remote and rural areas.

Adjunct Associate Professor Gwynne and her team worked closely with Aboriginal communities in rural and remote New South Wales to develop an evidence-based model of oral health provision, using a diverse range of delivery methods which include fixed and mobile clinics and portable kits, and supported by local Aboriginal health professionals where possible. Adjunct Associate Professor Gwynne’s research shows that this model provides more efficient, effective and consistent services compared with more conventional fly-in, fly-out services. Data from soon-to-be-published research shows that the model substantially improves health outcomes at a much lower cost.

Her team has also developed a school-based fluoride varnish program targeting primary schools with a high Aboriginal enrolment; and a TAFE scholarship program for Aboriginal students which more than tripled the completion rate from 30% to 96%. Development of both of these projects relied on what is known as a co-design approach, where programs and services are designed in close cooperation with end-users to identify the key needs.

“The critical thing about co-design is that you need to start the conversations before you have firmed up the question – otherwise it’s not co-design, it’s merely consultation. It’s not easy, but our research shows that when you do get it right, co-design really works,” said Adjunct Associate Professor Gwynne.

Read more about Adjunct Associate Professer Gwynne’s work here.

Associate Professor Melissa Kang, Australian Centre for Public and Population Health Research, University of Technology Sydney – Achieving fair and equitable access to healthcare for young people

Associate Professor Kang has led three seminal studies looking at the experiences of young people in New South Wales trying to access healthcare services. This body of research, which has already proven to be hugely influential in health policy making, has looked at key barriers to integrated timely care – one in particular being the fragmented nature of our healthcare system.

The most recent of these studies, the ACCESS 3 Study, tracked groups of marginalised young people and their navigation of the health system in the digital age. The researchers also interviewed senior clinicians and health services managers about their perspectives on how to better engage with young people.

This study found that cost was the most frequently cited barrier to accessing healthcare, and that layers of disadvantage can compound difficulties in navigating the health system. These findings and a host of recommendations provided input for a policy translation forum convened after data collection. NSW Health used this evidence even before publication to develop its new health framework for the state for the next seven years, with the aim of strengthening the way the health system responds to the needs of young people

“One of the most significant developments we documented in this study is the way young people integrate the internet into their healthcare experience. If they have a concern, they’ll go to the internet to find out if they actually need to seek help. But we found that at that point, they would much rather have face-to-face consultations than do everything online. The importance of developing skills in consulting with adolescent patients is a key message,” said Associate Professor Kang.

Read more about Associate Professer Kang’s work here.


Dr Amy Peden, School of Public Health and Community Medicine, UNSW Sydney – Reducing unintentional river drowning in Australia

Rivers are the leading location for unintentional drownings in Australia – ahead of beaches and swimming pools – but there has been remarkably little if any research done in this area before the work of Dr Peden and her colleagues, here or anywhere else in the world.

Dr Peden’s groundbreaking research explores the hows and whys of unintentional river drownings in Australia. It finds that around 80% of river drowning victims are male, who seem to be more prone to riskly behaviour in and around rivers. Crucially, around 40% of victims had consumed alcohol before drowning: average blood alcohol rates in drowning victims were around four times the legal limit for drowning.

These findings point to a way forward in reducing river drowning deaths, and the risk factors Dr Peden’s research has uncovered have been incorporated into the messaging of Royal Life Saving’s Respect The River awareness campaign. Since that campaign was launched, there has been a reduction in river drownings of around 17%, after years of relatively unvarying figures.

“We’ve taken our findings to the media and we’ve definitely seen the government start to talk about rivers as drowning locations. We’ve heard ministers mention rivers as well as beaches and pools. We’ve raised awareness that there are a diversity of locations where people drown and rivers are the leading location,” Dr Peden said.

Read more about Dr Peden’s work here.


Find out more

Media contact: Hugo Wilcken M: 0451 122 146

About the Research Action Awards and past winners

Watch video interviews with this year’s winners