How innovative research helped older people during the pandemic

The Sax Institute’s role in research that helped priority populations during the pandemic has been highlighted in a new report by NSW Health.

The COVID-19 Research Program Outcomes Report detailed the results of the $30 million invested in research by the NSW government between 2020 and 2023. The research, clinical trials and programs funded under this program aimed to give policymakers the evidence needed to minimise health and social impacts of the pandemic.

One of the research projects from the program was a series of online surveys to participants in the 45 and Up Study, investigating the pandemic’s impact on health and wellbeing.

Dr Martin McNamara, CEO of the Sax Institute and Chief Investigator of the 45 and Up Study, said the report shows the breadth of impact achieved by the research community. “The research sector responded to a complex and rapidly-changing health crisis with new ways of generating evidence and a real emphasis on sharing knowledge and providing insights in a timely way.”

The series of online surveys, known as 45 and Up COVID Insights, involved more than 32,000 participants of the 45 and Up Study, who were all 55 years or older. The 45 and Up Study has followed a quarter of a million Australians since 2005 and is administered by the Sax Institute.

Five short surveys were conducted between 2020-2022, covering the pandemic’s impact on health, loneliness, lifestyle, physical activity, diet, sleep, alcohol use and access to health services, as well as experiences with telehealth, vaccination and more. The surveys were co-produced by the Institute and NSW Health, who worked closely with clinical and policy groups, along with a group of research collaborators.

Insights from the surveys influenced policy and planning in several ways:

  • A decrease in physical activity reported during the first stay-at-home period in 2020 informed subsequent messaging on how to stay active in safe ways
  • More than 1 in 4 people missed healthcare appointments in the stay-at-home period in 2021, which informed future planning for services
  • The worsening of mental health as the pandemic progressed – 29% reported it in survey one, growing to 44% by survey five – shaped mental health service planning
  • The negative impact of the pandemic on people with disabilities – informed work on the National Disability Strategy.

Findings will be used into the future to understand the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health and wellbeing of the population. Researchers can access survey data along with linked data to examine changes in participants’ patterns of health service use and long-term health outcomes.

“The success of this project, along with the others from the COVID-19 Research Program, shows the capacity of the research sector to pivot and respond effectively to urgent priorities,” said Dr McNamara. “It continues to be critical that evidence from research is mobilised in a way that can support decision makers confronted with key health system challenges.”