Giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families a voice through research

Wednesday 20 December 2023

Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have survived the harsh but beautiful lands of Australia for over 65,000 years. Despite the ravages that colonisation has caused for their communities, they continue to survive, and Mater Researchers are working to close the healthcare gap help them thrive. 

Associate Professor Kym Rae and her research team are determined to improve healthcare outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. By partnering with communities, the research team is forging strong alliances and focusing on improving understanding of the serious health issues identified by community members to support the growth of strong families in communities.   

The team has spent the past two years visiting more than 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities throughout Queensland, engaging with over 230 people to hear their stories and talk about the importance of early life - from pregnancy, throughout the perinatal period and the first 1,000 days of a child's life.   

“We always ask the question, ‘what do you believe is important for families?’, and everyone we speak to agrees that the perinatal period is critical for future health,” A/Prof Rae said. 

“Despite the communities identifying its importance, there are currently no studies using a co-designed approach to investigate the critical importance of the first 1,000 days in the development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to healthy adults.” 

Yarns held with communities to date have identified other important impacting health outcomes including social and emotional wellbeing, exposure to trauma, grief and loss and impacts of racism and access to basic healthcare interventions, such as hearing, eyes and dental care. 

“Community members identified how challenging this was for those with issues such as autism, fetal alcohol syndrome and cerebral palsy to access early interventions, particularly when living in rural or remote regions,” A/Prof Rae said.  

“To respond to community feedback, we will combine the longitudinal study with a range of immediate healthcare interventions to improve outcomes for families now." 

“This will enable parents who join the study to self-refer to the PACT program, led by Dr Koa Whittingham, to support parenting and social emotional wellbeing, and all babies born into the study will be screened early in life to determine if they are at risk of poor neurodevelopmental outcomes.” 

Babies who are identified as at risk of these poor outcomes will be referred into the LEAP program led by Dr Kath Benfer and Prof Roz Boyd, where parents will learn about everyday play activities that can promote neurodevelopment and improve outcomes for children. This will be supported via an Aboriginal Health worker in their community and via telehealth, enabling easy access to those outside of metropolitan areas. Each of these programs will meet a priority set by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities of Queensland. 

The research team are now finalising plans to co-design the elements of the longitudinal study of parents and their children for the first 1,000-2,000 days of life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. This ambitious research project to close the healthcare gap is the product of a Strong Families Study grant, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council.  

Working with Aboriginal researcher co-leads Professor Maree Toombs and Associate Professor Anne-Marie Eades, as well as Aboriginal researchers Professor Sandra Eades, Professor Rhonda Marriott, and researchers from the Children’s Health Research Centre, the team will also soon formalise an Indigenous Steering Committee. 

A/Prof Rae said that community members are well aware that what happened in the previous generation can have significant implications for the generations to follow. 

“The people we speak to in these communities speak out about the intergenerational trauma that is still being experienced through colonisation and systemic racism. For this reason, self-determination of research priorities and practices can only be delivered using a co-designed approach,” A/Prof Rae said.  

“Having a strong culture improves health and resilience for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and our team is determined to walk hand in hand with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to create a better today, a better tomorrow and a stronger future for their families.” 


This article was featured in the December 2023 edition of Research Australia's INSPIRE magazine. Please click here to view the issue in full.