Sax Institute celebrates public health research that improves lives

Two public health researchers whose work has had a direct effect on policy and practice in areas as diverse as COVID-19 infections among children and hospital-acquired pressure injuries have been honoured in the Sax Institute’s annual Research Action Awards tonight.

The winners this year are:

  • Dr Archana Koirala, National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, for her work on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Australian paediatric population
  • Dr Michelle Barakat-Johnson, Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Sydney, for her work on the prevention and management of hospital-acquired pressure injuries.

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

Congratulating the winners, Sax Institute CEO Professor Sally Redman said their projects were outstanding examples of how public health and health services research can make a concrete difference.

“Although our two winners work in very different areas of public health, what brings their projects together is the way their research findings were made available to decision makers in real time so that they could have a direct impact on policy and practice,” Professor Redman said.

“I’m so pleased that we’ve been able to honour researchers who have so strongly focused on the practical application of their research to health policy and services to improve the wellbeing of others.”

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. The Secretary of NSW Health, Susan Pearce, delivered an opening address at the event, which was attended by around 100 senior policy makers, research leaders, academics and others.

Professor John Lavis – Director of the McMaster Health Forum at McMaster University in Canada and co-lead of the Global Commission on Evidence to Address Societal Challenges – 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 of public health research in Australia and of the determination of early and mid-career researchers to make a real difference to policy and practice,” he 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 2022 Research Action Award Winners

Dr Archana Koirala, Staff Specialist at the National Centre for Immunisation Research, Clinical Associate Lecturer, University of Sydney – The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Australian paediatric population

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Koirala led a team of researchers to track and understand SARS-CoV-2 transmission within schools and early learning centres. Working with researchers from NCIRS, NSW Health and NSW Department of Education, Dr Koirala and her colleagues found that transmission rates in educational settings were much lower than in others such as households and recreational facilities. Her research also showed that children were not the key drivers of transmission and were less likely to be affected by severe COVID-19.

This work provided critical real-time data to policy makers and empowered them to keep schools open during times of COVID-19 community transmission, reinforcing the use of mitigation measures and vaccination to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“Our research had direct bearing on an unfolding public health crisis. It was a new paradigm of working together with decision makers, where the research not only fed directly into policy decisions but also informed the public in real time,” said Dr Koirala.

“I’m really proud of the fact that by doing this work with the children and their families, we were able to return children back to school in a COVID-safe way as early as possible.”

Watch Dr Koirala discuss her work here.

Dr Michelle Barakat-Johnson, Associate Professor at Susan Wakil School of Nursing, University of Sydney and Skin Integrity Lead, Sydney Local Health District – The prevention and management of hospital-acquired pressure injuries

Dr Barakat-Johnson’s work addresses hospital-acquired pressure injuries – more commonly known as bedsores – which can have a major impact on patient health and wellbeing while also being largely preventable. Her team’s research, involving 1,500 clinicians and 1,600 patients, focused on one NSW local health district where the incidence of hospital-acquired pressure injuries had increased substantially. Findings from her work guided the implementation of innovative, evidence-based approaches that reduced the number of hospital-acquired pressure injuries across the district by 51%. This success led to the creation of a state-wide pressure injury collaborative which provides clinicians with the guidance needed to develop effective, ward-based pressure injury prevention plans.

“A lot people don’t know that pressure injuries are actually quite a serious complication in hospitals, so I’m really pleased that this issue is getting recognition through this award,” Dr Barakat-Johnson said.

“What I’m really proud of is the impact our work has had on patients. By reducing the occurrence of pressure injuries, we’ve been able to reduce their suffering while at the same time boosting their recovery,”

Watch Dr Barakat-Johnson discuss her work here.