AITHM James Cook University

11 June 2019

A national network dedicated to generating research projects that will strengthen the lives of northern Australians with disabilities who have limited access to health resources is meeting in Mount Isa this week to share its vision.

The Northern Australia Research Network (NARN), which is supported by JCU, along with other universities, health services and allied health providers across the region, has joined forces with HOT North, a research program led by the Menzies School of Health Research, to deliver two days of workshops and presentations designed to foster collaboration and build research capacity for clinicians and researchers.

In partnership with Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA), NARN seeks to bring together expertise and build research capacity at multiple levels – from communities to service providers and researchers – to enhance child development, rehabilitation and older persons’ services for people living in regional, rural and remote areas of Queensland, the Northern Territory (NT) and Western Australia (WA).

“We are driving research across different sectors in northern Australia, drawing on the existing strengths and resources in the region, and building on them,” said JCU Associate Professor in Rehabilitation, Ruth Barker, who is co-chair of NARN.

“Rather than us all doing little projects that have limited scope, we are trying to work together on projects that have value and that can be translated into practice across the north.”

Conceived in 2016, the network includes researchers, clinicians, state and territory government health managers, Primary Health Networks and consumers. Allied health professionals form the majority of the membership.

NARN is currently small, but its reach is already impressive. Researchers from JCU and Edith Cowan University in WA are currently working with Cairns-based Wuchopperen Health Service and IAHA on a HOT North-funded pilot project to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing communication difficulties following a stroke or other traumatic brain injury.

“This communication program was developed in WA and we could see that it had great relevance in Queensland. We decided to take the next step by translating the program into practice within an Aboriginal community controlled health organisation,” Dr Barker said. 

Earlier this year, another HOT North-funded NARN project trialled the eight-week placement of four JCU occupational therapy and speech pathology students in the remote NT East Arnhem Land community of Nhulunbuy to help fill gaps in allied health service provision to older residents. The students were supervised by an occupational therapist from Flinders University in South Australia, and two speech pathologists from JCU and NT’s Charles Darwin University.

“We co-designed the project with the community and worked closely with Aboriginal co-workers, who were also qualified interpreters. They played a critical role in guiding and supporting the students to communicate with the older people and their families in a culturally safe and responsive way,” Dr Barker said.

During this week’s Mount Isa event, NARN will hold its annual general meeting to set targets for the next 12 months. Expanding the network’s membership is high on the agenda, along with introducing new projects to help ensure the people of northern Australian have access to first-rate services that contribute to “children developing well, young people and adults growing well and staying strong, and older people ageing well in place”.

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