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Community key to sector-first approach to Indigenous health

Community members and top medical bodies across the Hunter and New England regions have joined forces in a powerful bid to improve First Nations health outcomes.


‘Research Our Way’ – a collaborative strategy between the University of Newcastle, Awabakal Limited, the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) and the Hunter New England Local Health District – aims to set a new standard for the national tertiary sector.


The project is a revolutionary approach, according to Worimi man and the country’s first Indigenous surgeon, Professor Kelvin Kong.


“There is a better way in which we all do research and the key to that is community engagement and community involvement,” Professor Kong said.


“This important work in ‘Research Our Way’ has involved years of collaboration, including input and co-design by local Aboriginal community Elders, Traditional Owners, community members as well as Aboriginal health workers, researchers and health practitioners,” Professor Kong said, representing HMRI.


In development since 2021, a five-year action plan and community-representative panel provide a vehicle to empower local people on and around Worimi and Awabakal lands to lead and participate in the space.


‘Research Our Way’ further cements First Nations excellence and community collaboration as a core priority for the University of Newcastle, according to Wiradjuri man and Pro-Vice Chancellor Indigenous Strategy and Leadership, Nathan Towney.


“Historically, our people have been more likely to be research subjects rather than centred voices part of the co-design process and we want to change that going forward,” Mr Towney said. 


The 2024 Australian Universities Accord, a government review of the country’s higher education system, has identified First Nations success and high-impact research as priority areas for the sector.


“This strategy really does start to shift those power dynamics to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the ones who get to say what gets researched, how it is researched, who's doing the research, and we hope that this has a far greater impact on our health outcomes,” Mr Towney said.


Central to the success of the project is ‘Wukul Yabang’ – meaning ‘one path’ in the Awabakal language.


‘Wukul Yabang’ is a diverse panel of local community and health representatives that meet periodically to provide essential research ethics, research methodology, cultural and community oversight.


It’s a crucial component to the success of the strategy and ultimately improving health outcomes, Raylene Gordon from Hunter New England Local Health District said.


“Research our way means valuing our way of knowing and doing, and educating others to respect this is not something you can do without our people,” Ms Gordon said.


Mr Jason Smith, CEO Awabakal Ltd, echoed those sentiments, and said Wukul Yabang provided researchers and institutions an opportunity to present to the panel and ensure their work was appropriate.


“Knowing there is a group of diverse Aboriginal people who have expertise in health, that researchers and Aboriginal Health organisations have access to, will make a huge difference in how Mob can benefit from research,” Mr Smith said.


Non-Indigenous PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle, Dr Sarah Browning, recently presented her proposed research in infection control to Wukul Yabang.


“It's a really friendly and welcoming environment and I'm really happy that I had the opportunity to come,” Dr Browning said.


“The biggest learning point for me has been, rather than designing projects and designing policies, and then going out and seeking consultation afterwards – The change needs to be happening from within… We need to be embedding the voices of Aboriginal people and their experiences and their needs for their community,” Dr Browning explained.


Last month, the Australian Productivity Commission passed down a damning review of the Federal Government’s 15-year-long ‘Closing the Gap’ strategy, aimed at addressing 19 targets for reducing disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.


Two of those recommendations prioritised improved power sharing and to recognise and support Indigenous data sovereignty, both of which are incorporated throughout ‘Research Our Way’.


The strategy working group engaged the Institute for Collaborative Race Research to speak with local Aboriginal people and community organisations to understand the opportunity that doing research differently can have on health and wellbeing.


Gamilaraay woman and University of Newcastle Aboriginal Health Research Partner, Yeena Thompson, said the time was now for the research field to understand Indigenous health in a more holistic way.


“Our concept of health is inseparable from, and entwined with, Country, family,

spirituality and cultural practices,” Ms Thompson said.


“We hope that other people will be able to see what we've done here and how we're doing it, and they'll be able to do it in their own communities to improve health outcomes for our people, because that's the bottom line for why all of us are invested in this whole project,” Ms Thompson said.


While ‘Research Our Way’ has been designed to suit the needs of the Hunter and New England regions, the founding organisations aspire for the approach to be adopted and rolled out suitably across the country.



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