Rich data to highlight crucial turning points for intervention to close the gap in Aboriginal health

25/11/2022 | 3 mins

A multi-disciplinary team of researchers will use more than 40 years of data to pinpoint crucial areas that could be “turning points” in development where intervention could contribute to closing the gap in Aboriginal health in Australia.

The team, led by Telethon Kids Institute and The University of Western Australia researcher, Associate Professor Francis Mitrou, has been awarded a prestigious Synergy Grant by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

The five-year study, in partnership with Aboriginal communities, will use data from the West Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey (WAACHS) of more than 5,000 Aboriginal children and their families collected between 2000 and 2002, and which has been linked to administrative datasets from WA Government, some stretching back more than 40 years.

The milestone study is one of the most significant studies of its kind examining the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal children, conducted under the principles of Indigenous Data Sovereignty.

As part of this study, the WAACHS data has been safely linked with other significant data from Government and service agencies including the Western Australian Departments of Health, Communities, Justice and Education.

Associate Professor Mitrou said the key focus of the project is to understand the influence of early life family environments and social and cultural factors on health and wellbeing outcomes as adults.

“We know that those early years are really crucial to the development of children, physically, cognitively and emotionally,” he said.

“We are in a unique position to use that rich data gathered through the WAACHS to pinpoint the areas that need the most focus and where policy changes could make a positive impact to Aboriginal life pathways and improve Closing the Gap indicators.

“We will do this work under the guidance and direction of strong Aboriginal governance and in partnership with Aboriginal communities.”

One of the project’s Chief Investigators, Dr Sharynne Hamilton, Co-Head of Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing at the Telethon Kids Institute, said the study would also put a spotlight on the impact of intergenerational trauma. 

“Many of our families are involved with an array of complex systems such as child protection and justice, so this gives us an opportunity to look at comprehensive information about the extent to which these systems have impacted generations of our families”, she said.

“Being able to have a really large amount of collective data will mean that we can tell a story that has never been told before and this will be critical to shaping effective policies and programs in the future.

“Working with Aboriginal Elders and community to interpret and translate the information from the study will assist us to investigate solutions to problems, and explore the strengths of children, families and communities that can enable self-determination and sustainable change.”

Telethon Kids Institute’s Director of First Nations Strategy and Leadership, Associate Professor Glenn Pearson, said the original WAACHS was a ground-breaking piece of research which continues to provide valuable data for Aboriginal-led projects.

“This was a unique project undertaken by the Telethon Kids Institute in the early 2000s under the leadership of Professor Steve Zubrick and his team, which included Francis Mitrou who now leads this Synergy study. 

The WAACHS had really strong support from Aboriginal communities at the time because it was done in partnership with Aboriginal people, and that support continues today.

“We’re really excited to see the next chapter of this project expand to have an even bigger impact on our understanding of the issues facing Aboriginal kids and their families.”

The team is made up of leading experts from a wide range of fields, including Aboriginal health and policy development, paediatrics, child development, epidemiology, biostatistics, economics, criminology, child protection, and psychology and psychiatry, including a mix of junior and senior Aboriginal researchers.

It includes researchers from Murdoch University, The University of Western Australia, Telethon Kids Institute, The University of Sydney, Australian National University, The University of South Australia and the Burnett Institute. 

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