AITHM James Cook University

26 November 2019

A ground-breaking JCU initiative is helping Torres Strait Islander and northern Cape York communities develop skills to conduct their own frontline health research projects.

The Thursday Island-based Capacity Strengthening Initiative, launched late last year, has generated more than 12 studies, currently being conducted across the region by first-time researchers with a professional interest in community health and wellbeing.  

“The participants include health workers, doctors, nurses and allied health professionals, but there are many others who work in health and wellbeing in the broader sense, including local council employees. They may not have a degree, but they have identified issues within their communities and want to do something about them,” said JCU research educator, Dr Luisa Roeder, who is helping to deliver the initiative.

 “It is important to encourage people on the ground to use their local knowledge to develop tools for initiating and pursuing their own research. The aim is effective, community driven and owned health solutions, rather than have external parties come in, do the research, and leave.

“The overall workshop curriculum for this initiative was designed by a consultative group of Elders and senior health providers seeking to establish a research agenda unique to local culture and health needs.”

Current research projects span a diverse range of issues, from clean water access, palliative care and speech pathology to women’s leadership roles, skin health awareness and nutrition.

Dr Roeder and the director of the Capacity Strengthening Initiative, AITHM Professor Malcolm McDonald, a specialist outreach physician, researcher and clinical teacher, have conducted three workshops on Thursday Island this year, with a fourth scheduled for mid-November. Participants from outer Torres Strait islands, the Northern Peninsular Area and Cape York fly in to attend.

The content of each two-day workshop is aligned to different stages of a standard research project life cycle, from developing research questions, undertaking preliminary literature reviews and creating an appropriate research methodology through to collecting and analysing data, then preparing research results for presentation and/or publication.

“Basically, everything that we discuss during a workshop, participants can put into practice straight away,” said Dr Roeder.

The consultative group provides real-time advice and feedback during workshops, and the researchers submit participant evaluation forms. The results have been overwhelmingly positive to date.

“People are very happy with the learn-by-doing approach,” said Dr Roeder. “They are comfortable with the step-by-step process and feel it is culturally appropriate.”

Both workshop facilitators encourage participants to maintain regular contact between workshops to ensure their research projects stay on course.

“They know what they have to do next, but we are always there if they encounter a problem,” said Dr Roeder.

She believes the researchers are now galvanised to achieve their goals.

“They feel they’re in the driver’s seat. I think that is really the key,” she said.

The Capacity Strengthening Initiative is also set to inspire similar initiatives in other communities across regional and remote Australia.

“Already, there are discussions about going to other areas of northern Australia to deliver something similar, based on this template. That would be fantastic,” said Dr Roeder.

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