Sax Institute honours research with real-world impact

Two public health researchers who have achieved high impact in areas as diverse as obesity prevention in Australian children and improving the death certification process in the developing world have been honoured in the Sax Institute’s Research Action Awards tonight.

It’s the sixth 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. Each winner receives a certificate and a prize of $5,000.

Congratulating the winners, Sax Institute CEO Professor Sally Redman said their exemplary work demonstrated the power of Australian-based research to drive positive change in the delivery of health programs and services, not just in this country but across the world.

“Our two winners have achieved amazing outcomes in very different spheres of public health. But what unites them is the way they have consistently worked with decision makers to ensure that their research translates into better outcomes for people’s health and wellbeing,” Professor Redman said.

“In both cases, the winners collaborated closely with government health departments right from the beginning, ensuring that policy needs and implementation strategies were built into the fabric of their research projects. It is so encouraging to see early- and mid-career researchers showing such talent and determination in bringing about the change we need.”

The winners were announced by Professor Redman at a special event held remotely due to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions. The Secretary of NSW Health, Elizabeth Koff, was guest speaker at the event which was attended by around 150 senior policy makers, research leaders, academics and others.

Dr Heather Buchan, Senior Medical Advisor at the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care, and chair of the independent assessment committee that chose the winners, said the high quality of this year’s applications was particularly impressive given the constraints on many in the research community due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This really shows the underlying strength and vigour of our public health research here in Australia. We are so fortunate to have a community of talented researchers who understand the importance of working closely with the people and groups who can ensure their research has real impact on health and wellbeing.”

There is broad 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’.

The 2020 Research Action Award Winners:

Scientia Associate Professor Rohina Joshi, School of Population Health, University of New South Wales and Head of the Global Health Workforce, The George Institute for Global Health – Improving the quality of death certification of home deaths in the Philippines

Associate Professor Joshi’s work in the Philippines on a standardised means of certifying deaths and identifying cause of death has dramatically improved the quality of health data collected by the government, enabling policy makers to better target health interventions across the country.

In the Philippines, as in many developing countries, most deaths occur at home rather than in a medical facility. A death certificate is a necessary prerequisite for burial, but doctors may have very little to go on to identify the cause of death, which is often reported in vague terms such as “old age” or “respiratory failure”.

To enable doctors to certify deaths in the absence of medical records or other information, Associate Professor Joshi and her team worked closely with the Philippines Department of Health to develop a software decision support tool for verbal autopsies, called SmartVA. The tool provides the doctor with a series of standardised questions to ask a relative of the deceased. This information is then processed through an algorithm which provides the doctor with recommendations for causes of death.

In several Philippines municipalities it is now a requirement for physicians to use SmartVA to certify deaths where there is no access to medical records. Jurisdictions in the Philippines are now seeing a dramatic improvement in the quality of death certificates, ensuring health departments have a much better understanding of the underlying causes of death and allowing them to better plan preventive health interventions.

“It’s been incredibly rewarding to see our work have such a significant impact on the quality of health data collected in the developing world. Thanks to its success in the Philippines, we’re now rolling out SmartVA in a number of other countries, including Papua New Guinea, Peru and Colombia,” said Associate Professor Joshi.

Read more about Associate Professor Joshi’s work here.

Associate Professor Luke Wolfenden, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle – Implementation of nutrition, physical activity and obesity interventions in NSW

The key focus of Associate Professor Wolfenden’s work is how we can improve the implementation of childhood obesity prevention services across the community. While a lot of resources are being invested in identifying effective obesity prevention programs, much less work is being done in Associate Professor Wolfenden’s area, which is how we get these services up and running and working well.

Associate Professor Wolfenden and his team have conducted a series of trials over several years, testing different strategies to implement programs in a variety of settings, such as schools, childcare services and sporting clubs. The research identified aspects involving training, feedback, monitoring and mentoring where the delivery of programs can be significantly improved at a reduced cost.

One example is the work done on improving the implementation of a healthy canteen policy in schools across NSW, which aims to restrict the amount unhealthy foods available. Associate Professor Wolfenden’s team was able to double the number of schools participating in the program.

“We’ve been really thrilled with the impact our program of work has had. Our work in the Hunter New England region has reduced child obesity rates by around 1% per annum, at a time when rates were rising elsewhere in NSW. But what was particularly exciting was that the NSW Ministry of Health took the core architecture of our program and adopted it for the delivery of its own child obesity prevention services right across the state.”

Read more about Associate Professor Wolfenden’s work here.

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