Associate Professor Janelle Stirling is the Lowitja Institute’s Executive Director of Research and an Adjunct Associate Professor at Southern Cross University in Lismore, New South Wales. A descendant of the Arrernte people from Central Australia, Janelle is an experienced researcher in the area of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health with a particular focus on primary health care.
We are now half-way through the term of our subsidiary organisation, the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health (CRCATSIH), which is funding the majority of our research and capacity building activities through to 30 June 2014. With most of this work agenda now underway around Australia, it is a crucial time for us.
The CRCATSIH is the third in a line of CRCs devoted to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research that began back in 1997 with the CRC for Aboriginal and Tropical Health (CRCATH), followed by the CRC for Aboriginal Health (CRCAH). However, unlike our predecessor CRCs, we only have five years to deliver a comprehensive program of work rather than the usual seven.
This has put substantial pressure on our staff, Program Leaders and researchers given the collaborative and consultative nature of our work, which is why the Lowitja Institute Board approached me in October 2011 to help ensure we continued to deliver on our commitments under the CRCATSIH’s Commonwealth Agreement.
My role is to coordinate and manage activities across our three research program areas as well as to provide input into the design and roll-out of individual projects. Apart from bringing my expertise as a senior Aboriginal health researcher to this effort, I am also helped enormously by my prior experience and understanding of the work of the CRC ‘family’ and its Facilitated Development Approach to generating research.
My connection to the Lowitja Institute stretches back to 2001 when I became involved with the CRCATH through my work as Principal Research Fellow within the Indigenous Health Research Program at partner organisation the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. Since then I have worked as the Chief Executive Officer of the Durri Aboriginal Medical Corporation in Kempsey, NSW, and most recently as Associate Professor Aboriginal Health at the University Centre for Rural Health – North Coast, which falls under the umbrella of the University of Sydney.
However, I maintained my connection to the CRC program through my 2007 appointment to the CRCAH Board as an independent director. In that capacity I was involved in the discussions leading to the successful bid to establish the CRCATSIH, and was the last independent member of the CRCAH Board when its term finished at the end of 2009.
The difference is that now, rather than providing broad direction to organisational activities as a Board member, I am involved in the day-to-day complexities of running some 20 separate research projects and the development of a new generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health researchers. From where I sit it is absolutely essential, therefore, that we strengthen coordination between our research program areas rather than treating them as separate silos, while remaining alive to new research opportunities in the short time remaining until our CRC funding expires.
Since the start of 2012 we have made significant progress on this front, with a number of new ‘quick start’ projects identified to round off our research agenda in critical areas. Here I focus on two such projects we are supporting in our program Healthy Start, Healthy Life, both of which are due to start within weeks.
Victorian Aboriginal Child Mortality Study (VACMS): Phase 2 – Analysis of mortality and disparities for Aboriginal compared to non-Aboriginal infants, children and young people dying between 2008 and 2009
Good quality, accurate information describing the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in Victoria is needed to determine health status, to plan and deliver services, and to evaluate investment in Aboriginal health. The inconsistent identification of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin in Victorian birth, hospital and death statistics significantly compromises the current completeness and accuracy of information describing the health of our infants, children and young people.
VACMS will for the first time address the inaccurate recording of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander births in Victoria. The project, led by Associate Professor Jane Freemantle from the University of Melbourne, will bring together birth and death information from a number of Victorian vital statistics data sources to give an accurate report of the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies born between 1988 and 2008, and the number and causes of any deaths during this period.
Linking information on the health of children and young people from different sources will help to determine whether their health status is improving, which health programs are working and which ones are not, the size of the gap in health outcomes between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and other children in Victoria, and what programs are needed to close this gap.
This study will build on past and continuing efforts by State and Federal governments to further reform the quality of data in health information systems and to report on progress towards improving the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Victoria. Importantly, this project will enable an accurate assessment of the progress of State and national initiatives aimed at closing the gap in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander infant and child mortality. More information is available at the project website, www.vacms.net.au.
Health Promotion and Continuous Quality Improvement
Health promotion is recognised by communities, service providers and governments as having an important role in helping to close the gap in health and life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians.
Continuous quality improvement (CQI) approaches can strengthen health promotion by improving quality and supporting systems development for health promotion practice. The use of modern CQI methods can help services to deliver effective health promotion.
A study led by researcher Nikki Percival from the Menzies School of Health Research has shown that it is feasible to use quality improvement tools and processes to assess systematically how well health promotion is done, and supported by systems, within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health care services. The practical outcome – a set of quality improvement tools and resources for health promotion – has the potential to benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
The health promotion quality improvement tools were developed using the best available research evidence and have been rigorously tested in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander settings to ensure they are practical and user friendly. The health promotion CQI tools enable service providers to:
- systematically describe and assess how well activities and projects align with good practice
- assess how well organisational systems are functioning
- plan how to improve systems that support good practice.
The Lowitja Institute is supporting the direct implementation of the health promotion CQI tools through One21seventy: the National Centre for Quality Improvement in Indigenous Primary Health Care, and the tools will be launched at the Lowitja Institute National Conference on CQI in Alice Springs on 14–15 May 2012.