Sax Institute celebrates outstanding research that improves health and wellbeing

Two health researchers whose work has had a direct impact on policy and practice in areas as diverse as dysphagia and obesity prevention have been honoured in the Sax Institute’s annual Research Action Awards tonight.

The winners this year are:

  • Professor Bronwyn Hemsley, University of Technology Sydney, for her work on providing safe and enjoyable meals for people with swallowing disability
  • Professor Gary Sacks, Deakin University, for his work on the Food-EPI Australia initiative to advance obesity prevention policy.

This is the ninth time the Sax Institute has presented the Research Action Awards since their inauguration in 2015 to recognise researchers whose work has had a significant impact on health policy, programs or service delivery.

Congratulating the winners, Sax Institute CEO Dr Martin McNamara said the winning projects were outstanding examples of how public health research can make a concrete difference to people’s health and wellbeing.

“Our two winners have achieved incredible outcomes in quite different areas of public health. But what they have in common is the way their research findings have fed directly into policies that are having a positive effect on people’s lives,” Dr McNamara said.

“I’m very pleased that we’ve been able to honour researchers who have a strong focus on the practical application of their research. It’s so encouraging to see researchers with a real vision of how their research can have real-world impact.”

The winners were presented with their Awards, which each bring a $5,000 prize, by the Sax Institute’s Board Chair Professor Ian Olver AM at a ceremony in Sydney tonight. Dr Jean-Frédéric Levesque, Chief Executive of the NSW Agency for Clinical Innovation and the Deputy Secretary of Clinical Innovation and Research at the NSW Ministry of Health, delivered an opening address at the event, which was attended by around 100 senior policy makers, research leaders, academics and others.

Professor Annette Boaz – Director of the NIHR Health and Social Care Workforce Research Unit and Professor of Health and Social Care, King’s College London – chaired the independent assessment committee that chose the winners, and commented that the committee was hugely impressed by the quality of this year’s applications.

“The Research Action Awards are a great demonstration of the vitality and strength of public health research in Australia. I applaud the determination of researchers who want to make a real impact on policy and practice,” she said.

There is a broad consensus among experts that while research can make a critical contribution to health policy development, opportunities to use research evidence in policy are often 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’.

The 2023 Research Action Award Winners

Professor Bronwyn Hemsley, Head of Speech Pathology, University of Technology Sydney – Providing safe and enjoyable meals for people with swallowing disability

Improving the quality of life for people with difficulty swallowing, known as dysphagia, is the focus of Professor Hemsley’s work. Around 8% of the general population and up to 80% of people with a disability have dysphagia, which impacts hugely on their health, nutrition and quality of life. Tragically, choking on food and aspiration pneumonia are leading causes of death in residential care.

Professor Hemsley was the lead investigator for a project funded by the NDIS Quality & Safeguards Commission and Victorian Department of Families, Fairness, and Housing to address this issue. She led a large, interdisciplinary team to investigate and co-create training for support workers providing mealtime assistance to people with swallowing difficulty.

The result was an online course, “Co-Creating Safe and Enjoyable Meals for People with Swallowing Disability’, which has provided training for well over a thousand support workers across Australia. It has been adopted into NDIS Legislation and rules, practice standards, quality indicators, practice alerts, and training materials.

“Our research is having a real impact in an area that affects so many people but that often flies under the radar. I’m very pleased to see our work recognised with this award,” said Professor Hemsley.

Read more about Professor Hemsley’s work here.

Professor Gary Sacks, Professor of Public Health Policy and Co-Director of the Global Centre for Preventive Health and Nutrition, Deakin University – Food-EPI Australia initiative: advancing obesity prevention policy

Professor Sacks’s work focuses on obesity prevention, at a time of soaring obesity rates in Australia. He initiated and continues to lead the Food Policy Index (Food-EPI Australia) initiative, which provides an ongoing assessment of the extent to which Australian jurisdictions are implementing recommended policies for obesity prevention, with reference to international best practice.

The Food Policy Index covers up to 50 key policy areas – including food composition, labelling, promotion, prices and provision – that have been shown to have an important impact on population diets and obesity, as well as infrastructure support that helps facilitate effective policy implementation. It has contributed to important advancements in obesity prevention policy in Australia, including as part of the adoption of the National Preventive Health Strategy in 2021 and the National Obesity Strategy in 2022.

“There is global consensus on the best policies and actions to create healthier food environments. But policy implementation has been slow globally and in Australia,” said Professor Sacks.

“Through our research, we’ve improved implementation of effective policies and highlighted the responsibility of governments and the food industry to create healthier food environments.”

Read more about Professor Sacks’s work here.