Three Australian health researchers whose inspiring work has had a major impact in areas as diverse as childhood trauma, stroke prevention and homelessness were recognised at the Sax Institute’s 2018 Research Action Awards on Wednesday evening.

Braving the wettest November conditions Sydney has seen in decades, an enthusiastic audience of over a hundred senior policy makers, research leaders and academics gathered at Darling Harbour to celebrate the achievements of the three researchers from Melbourne, Wollongong and Perth. They were:

  • Associate Professor Anne Abbott, Monash University, for her research and advocacy around non-invasive stroke prevention
  • Professor Kate Curtis, University of Sydney, for her contribution to reducing the incidence and impact of childhood injury
  • Associate Professor Lisa Wood, University of Western Australia, for her work in addressing policy gaps for homeless people.

Established in 2015, the annual Research Action Awards recognise researchers whose work has made a significant impact on health policy, programs or service delivery.

Congratulating the winners, Master of Ceremonies Don Nutbeam, Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney and Senior Adviser at the Sax Institute, said the awards acknowledged researchers who had not only identified issues of immediate relevance to health policy makers, but who had found “elegant and creative ways to have their findings acted upon”.

The winners received their awards from guest speaker Professor Anne Kelso AO, CEO of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). In her address, Professor Kelso said that as governments and funders across the world increasingly focus on the return on investment from their research spend, the potential real-world impact of health research has become a critical yardstick. She noted that the NHMRC had recently introduced impact into its assessment of researchers’ track records when they apply for grants.

“I hope that will encourage all researchers to think about impact from the start,” Professor Kelso said.

“What I admire about the Sax Institute Research Action Awards is that they recognise the actual impact of research on society, on improvements in policy and the way disease prevention and healthcare are designed. They draw attention to these impacts and therefore help promote community understanding of the central role research plays at every level of the system, from prevention to detection to treatment and care.”

The Secretary of NSW Health, Elizabeth Koff, was the other distinguished guest speaker of the evening. Ms Koff said that while research had been fundamental to changes in service delivery in the health system, there were always challenges in its implementation. These challenges included securing agreement from groups she labelled the big ‘P’ and the little ‘P’ – politicians, and professional providers in service delivery – both of which could bring sometimes differing perspectives into the discussion.

“Part of the challenge we have as policy and service managers is to understand how to navigate policy implementation. It requires negotiation, consultation, influence and patience. And sometimes it requires multiple attempts to get the right outcome.”

But she said that her answer to the question of whether evidence-based policy was a realisable ambition remained a resounding “yes”.

 

The winning researchers and their work

Associate Professor Anne Abbott’s award-winning research concerns people with advanced carotid stenosis (narrowing of the main arteries supplying blood to the brain) who, until very recently, were routinely recommended procedural treatment even if they had no related stroke symptoms. These invasive interventions, typically surgery to clear blockages or stenting to widen arteries, come with a significant risk of harm.

Associate Professor Abbott’s discovery was that medical intervention alone can reduce the risk of stroke in these people by at least 65%, compared with previous practice, without the need for invasive procedures in many cases.

Her efforts to alert the medical community to the significance of her findings led to her being invited to address US experts conducting a review of US Medicare’s reimbursement policy for treatment of carotid artery disease. Her work was instrumental in their decision not to fund widespread stenting, helping to reduce harmful and wasteful procedures in many thousands of people each year.

“The message I’d like the public to take home from my research is that they have the most power to prevent their own stroke by adopting healthy lifestyle habits and using medication appropriately for things like high blood pressure and cholesterol. Combining all these things is very effective in stroke prevention,” said Associate Professor Abbott.

 

Professor Kate Curtis is honoured for her seminal work in childhood injury. Although major trauma is the leading cause of death and disability in Australian children, injury rates have not changed in the past decade and there has been little research into the incidence or causes of childhood injury in Australia or the most effective treatments. Professor Curtis heads up a major program of research that aims to fill the gaps in paediatric trauma knowledge and reduce the incidence and impact of childhood injury.

Professor Curtis and her team have also assessed processes of care and associated outcomes for 535 severely injured children in NSW, as well as conducting a two-year study to determine what aspects of care patients feel could improve their experience and wellbeing.

Her research has for the first time described the incidence and causes of paediatric injury in Australia, using data from over half a million hospitalisation and mortality records. This work is already having a significant impact on policy, and was directly instrumental in the creation of Australia’s first-ever national injury prevention plan, which was signed off by Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt only just this month.

 

Associate Professor Lisa Wood became involved in homelessness and health research when she realised that the charities and agencies working at the coalface rarely have the time or resources to develop the real-world evidence needed to improve policy and drive fundamental change.

She started out working pro bono, and quickly built up a major program of research and collaboration with homelessness organisations across WA and Victoria. Her team has developed the largest database of linked homelessness and health data in Australia, gleaning new insights into predictors of homelessness, the effectiveness of interventions and the barriers to delivering policies and services that work. A key focus has been the use of evidence to advocate for services. A recent example was a street health service that was providing healthcare to rough sleepers, which was about to close due to lack of funding.

“We quickly generated some case studies and a report that showed the benefits of that service,” said Associate Professor Wood. “It got some media coverage which led to a philanthropist coming forward and offering $100,000 to continue that service. One of her comments was how much she valued the evaluation that we undertook of that service.”