- Historical Overview
One of the major achievements in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research, since the 1970s, has been the establishment of Aboriginal Health Research Ethics Committees (AHRECs) in Australia. Since the 1980s, several AHRECs were established and mandated by the National Health and Medical Research Committee (NHMRC) in Australia.
The AHRECs in Australia were initially established in response to the ever-increasing amount of research being conducted in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
In the early period, many researchers were not aware of an AHREC or that there was a new set of NHMRC ethical guidelines about engaging Aboriginal communities. Often the response when asked about their ethics process was that they had acquired ethical approval from their institution or organisation and had met the ethical obligations to continue their research study.
- NHMRC Ethical Guidelines
The establishment of the AHRECs and their important role in research was underpinned by the introduction of the Guidelines on Ethical Matters in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research (1991) by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). These guidelines were replaced in 2003 by the Values and Ethics: Guidelines for Ethical Conduct in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research and in 2018, the Ethical conduct in research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and communities: Guidelines for researchers and stakeholders.
The emergence of AHRECs and national guidelines meant all research involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had to:
- Obtain approval from a registered HREC and/or AHREC in their home State for consideration, and
- Address relevant guidelines and protocols in the applicant such as Guidelines on ethical matters in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research (1991)1
1. Chong, Alwin 2016, The past and the journey
- Do I Need Ethics Approval?
What is the process?
If your Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research project involves clinical or epidemiological research, data linkage or data release, health services or population health research, or qualitative research you will usually need ethics approval. This is true for any inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants, even if the health research is working across other population groups.
It is important to note that regardless of what percentage of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander participants there is in the research study, if you intend to analyse the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander population data, then an ethical review is required from an Aboriginal Health Research Ethics Committee (AHREC).
For health research ethics proposals being submitted through a university/research institution system or health services and hospitals, the research proposal should be assessed through an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-specific Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC). Visit our national, state and territory contacts or go to the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) or one of its eight state or territory affiliates. In the absence of a specific Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander committee, the HREC should carry out a consultative process that includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experts and key representatives.
If you are collecting ideas and information to plan a local project or evaluation of the service you provide, you may not need ethics approval. Of course ethical considerations for working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants still apply to quality assurance processes, and community consultation and ongoing communication is imperative.