Largest indigenous health program based in SA

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By Belinda Willis

Adelaide’s renowned health precinct is home to some of the nation’s best researchers fighting shocking statistics showing indigenous Australians have a 10 year lower life expectancy.

The precinct’s Aboriginal Health Research Unit is now the largest dedicated indigenous health program in Australia – and possibly the world.

“This is extremely unusual, all of our work is focused on the health of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people and we focus our work on things most important to their communities,” says Professor Alex Brown.

When Prof Brown was appointed to lead the unit at the new world-class South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) in 2012 there was only one another staff member. Now it has 58 staff with half of the team indigenous.

“Identifying and supporting people to develop career opportunities in research is part of our core foundation,” Prof Brown says. “It makes us better, it makes it more real, more translatable in terms of policy and practice and keeps us accountable to what communities want us to deliver.”

When Prof Brown was first approached about the job seven years ago, he saw a rare opportunity to establish this unique Aboriginal response in the heart of the precinct near the River Torrens. Most research in this vital area was usually retrofitted at an existing institution.

Professor Alex Brown leads the Aboriginal Health Research Unit, one of the e largest programs of its kind in Australia.

“We went from one staff to 50 staff fairly quickly and all because people have realised how unique an opportunity this is to make a substantial difference in Aboriginal health,” he says. “We started with asking the community what their research priorities were.”

The Wardliparingga team in the unit, named after a Kaurna term meaning ‘house river place’, has particularly focused on finding ways to reduce the impact and incidence of chronic disease along with understanding psychosocial determinants of illness and health.

It has also focused on determining how disparities in access to quality treatments and services can be improved to drive better health outcomes.

The disparity in health between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people is still significant, not just in terms of life expectancy, but generally in rates of heart and kidney disease, diabetes, cancer and depression.

Prof Brown says the unit is currently running about 40 different research projects and “we would be in the top group of researchers in terms of Aboriginal health across the country in what we do, and the sheer size of us as a group, we’re one of the best”.

He has been at the forefront in tackling the issue since he first trained in medicine in New South Wales consistently working to engage governments and agencies in making change.

Professor Alex Brown addresses media.

Prof Brown completed a Masters of Public Health and worked in Alice Springs managing the local Centre for Disease Control before starting in research, earning a PhD exploring the links between psychosocial stress, depression and heart disease in indigenous men. He is now also a professor of Aboriginal Health at the University of Adelaide.

At SAHMRI, Prof Brown is proud of the work the unit has achieved in policy recommendations and “we’ve trained a whole generation of young Aboriginal people to pursue careers in research”.

He is likely to have further impact on national change after being named as co-chair of a new advisory board overseeing the allocation of $160 million in national funding for indigenous health research announced in February by the Federal Government.

As part of the funding, $35 million was earmarked to develop a vaccine to eliminate Rheumatic heart disease, a complication of bacterial infections of the throat and skin. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 64 times more likely to develop the disease than non-indigenous people.

Prof Brown also sits on a range of national committees, including the Heart Foundation and the Cardiac Society Indigenous Cardiovascular Council and was previously a member of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Equality Council. Yet his core work is still firmly in SA.

“This is exactly the right place for us to be, we’re in the middle of the country, we can commute anywhere, we can access metropolitan, regional and remote communities we want to work across,” he says.

“There’s a single health system, single administrative structure and we’re in the heart of the medical research precinct…. Aboriginal health is right in the heart of it, it couldn’t be in a better place.”

Industry in focus: Health

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South Australia’s health sector is among the best in the world, renowned for developing new and advanced technologies and research outcomes. Our health industry infrastructure is world-class, providing new pathways and job opportunities, as well as a growing potential for health tourism.

Read more health stories here.

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