JCU is leading an Australia-first study to explore the potential of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s groups to improve maternal and child health outcomes in their own communities.
The five-year Women’s action for Mums and Bubs (WOMB) project, which commenced in 2018, partners with 10 Indigenous health services across Australia, including seven in Queensland, to support the development of local women’s groups and assess their ability to provide new mothers and their babies with a healthier start.
Whilst there have been significant reductions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander infant mortality rates, babies born to Indigenous mothers remain twice as likely to be of low birth weight, than their non-Indigenous counterparts.
“But there is strong evidence internationally that community women’s groups can improve maternal and child outcomes through improved quality of care, women’s empowerment and new learning,” said JCU Senior Research Fellow, Dr Michelle Redman-MacLaren, a public health researcher and project co-manager.
The WOMB project team includes researchers from JCU, Swinburne University, Adelaide University, the University of Sydney and Indigenous peak health bodies. However, Dr Redman-MacLaren is quick to point out that the project is community-led and will rely on two-way learning between the academics and health services, who will support the women’s groups to set their own agenda to improve support for mums and bubs.
“Community members know what will work best in their community, but often they are not asked,” she said. “Women know the challenges mothers face, the strengths they have and their needs. So part of this project is to determine whether women can change their health outcomes, by driving and supporting their own groups to take local action.”
Project participants will hold a face-to-face meeting in Cairns in October to strengthen relationships between community-appointed women’s group facilitators and their service and research partners. Resources and other forms of support are already shared through email updates, newsletters and monthly videoconferences between the health service partners, group facilitators and researchers.
Maternal and child health audit data routinely collected by the health services will be assessed throughout the five-year stepped implementation period to help determine whether the women’s groups are making a difference.
“We will be able to look at the data across the years and compare what has changed and when,” Dr Redman-MacLaren said. “We will also interview women participating in the groups and service providers to understand how and why the groups might work in different communities.”
She herself is excited to be part of such an “action-oriented” project, despite the challenges.
“This kind of community-led action for mums and bubs has never been documented in this way before,” she said. “It’s a participatory action research project within a rigorous implementation trial. So it uses well-tested trial methodology, but also participatory processes within it, and that is very unique and quite challenging in the scientific world.”
Funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, the WOMB project is part of the Centre for Research Excellence in Integrated Quality Improvement in Indigenous Primary Health Care.