Research Assistant and Doctoral Candidate at Torrens University Australia, Kristen Foley, was awarded the prestigious Public Health Research Award for her presentation; ‘Workplace impacts on doctors’ mental health: An Australian public hospital ethnographic study,’ which showcased research conducted with Director – Centre for Public Health, Equity and Human Flourishing (PHEHF), Professor Paul Ward and Torrens University Australia researchers; Dr Belinda Lunnay, Dr Mandi Baker, and Flinders University researchers Sharon Lawn and Michael Baigent.
The award is given for public health research that has been completed and is of high relevance to public health practice.
“It’s really humbling to have this level of recognition,” said Kristen of the collaborative effort.
“The project was innovative and designed through a sociological lens – trying to take the focus off the stress experienced by individual doctors at work, to look at the ways in which the contexts we live in promote or prevent our mental health.”
The importance of investing in environments that support mental health
Professor Paul Ward, Director, PHEHF, put the accolade into perspective.
“Kristen is PhD student and early career researcher, and these abstracts and presentations for the Public Health Research Award were not judged as an early career award or a PhD award, this is the creme de la creme, the top of the top,” explained Professor Ward.
“So, Kristen's achievements are brilliant, she's been in competition with professors who have been in this game for decades.”
The research team involved multidisciplinary team members with specialties in sociology, psychiatry, medicine, community mental health, and workplace wellbeing, to ensure that the research was undertaken in a way that did not cause unnecessary harm to doctors who volunteered to participate, particularly those at earlier stages of their career (already a risk factor for poorer mental health outcomes). It also involved researchers at different career levels, which supports effective mentoring and growth within the PHEHF Centre.
“We're applied researchers, and in our heart, we want to actually leave this world a better place than we came into, that's why we're in this game,” said Professor Ward.
“Hopefully this award will help to promote the research and showcase the importance of investing in work and workplace environments that support mental health – including the pressures of career progression and feeling comfortable to ask for help,” said Kristen.
“In turn this will be critical for funding future research to support the mental health of frontline medical staff that keep Australians well when they need it.”
Kristen said that the focus on the structures and environments in which we live was reflected in many presentations at the conference: a belief that community networks, social settings and institutional cultures are critical for mental health and health more broadly.
“This is also why I’m interested in public health research – it makes clear how health and illness are located within a complex ecology of material, ideological, and social factors,” said Kristen.
The Australian Public Health Conference 2023 hosted by PHAA
The Australian Public Health Conference 2023, a national conference held by the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA), presented a national and multi-disciplinary perspective on public health issues, under the theme 'Investing in a strong, smart and sustainable public health system for the future,' 26-28 September in Hobart, Tasmania.
The Public Health Association of Australia is Australia’s peak body for public health, advocating for the health and wellbeing of the population.
The conference brings together researchers, practitioners, policy makers, students and community members who have a strong commitment to change, driven by evidence and experience, and contribute to discussions on the broad range of public health issues and exchange ideas, knowledge and information on the latest developments in public health.
The 2023 Conference theme was ‘Investing in a strong, smart and sustainable public health system for the future,’ with a call to consider what constitutes a high value public health system.
Within the PHEHF, Torrens University Australia researchers take an explicit focus on how the resources for health and illness are distributed unevenly, in ways which are unfair and avoidable – a direct application of public health philosophy, explained Kristen.
The PHAA audience comprises of academics and researchers from across Australia, policymakers, charities, non-government organisations, major communicable disease and chronic disease organisations, and state and national health departments.
“Particularly for PhD students and early career researchers PHAA builds the confidence of experiencing speaking at national conferences, and it also adds to the competitiveness for other grants and fellowships,” said Professor Ward.
Increasing the reputation of Public Health research at Torrens University
All ten of the Torrens University Australia abstracts submitted were accepted by the Scientific Committee for oral presentations.
“It's a rigorous process and there are independent reviewers who review the abstract and make recommendations as to which ones are eligible and worthy of presentations and which ones aren't,” said Professor Ward.
The research showcased a cross section of our international research and research in Australia, as well as spanning different research methods, like studies using qualitative research methods and then others based on randomised control trials. From PhD studies to research from Associate Professors to Research Fellows, and major research for the Australian Research Council, the depth and breadth of the presentations was impressive.
“For Torrens University, it gives us a presence at the major Australian Public Health Association conference and shows critical mass. It's great for one or two people to present, but we had 10 oral presentations which shows public health departments and organisations, particularly in Australia, that Torrens University is open for business and doing a wide variety of quality and impactful research,” said Professor Ward.
“One of the great things about PHAA was we had presentations on research internationally, research we're undertaking in Sub Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, presentations around communicable diseases like HIV, COVID and bloodborne diseases, through to research happening in Australia around chronic conditions like cancer and breast cancer, and around oral health of kids,” said Professor Ward.
Professor Ward explained that PHEHF focuses on particularly marginalised, vulnerable populations that include culturally, linguistically diverse people or HIV high risk groups, and male or female sex workers for example. Or in terms of breast and lung cancer PHEHF focuses on people with a lower socioeconomic status.
“We're trying to understand how we can make the world a fairer place for everyone, and how we can create systems that allow all humans to flourish,” said Professor Paul.
“It sounds a bit fluffy, a bit kind of all encompassing, but it is possible to put certain systems in place that enable this kind a fair and equitable growth in society.”
“We have large, funded studies from Australian Research Council, National Health and Medical Research Council, Cancer Australia and South Australian state government funded studies,” explains Professor Ward.
“A lot of external funding which is a competitive environment with every other university across Australia. It's that level of competition, which is quite immense, and we’re exceptionally successful.”
“Without getting grants, we can't make a difference in the world,” said Professor Ward.
Torrens University presentations at the Australia Public Health Conference 2023
Australia Public Health Conference 2023 presenters (from left to right): Dr Nelsensius Klau Fauk, Kristen Foley, Associate Professor Lillian Mwanri, Gregorius Abanit Asa, Caitlan Mclean and Dr Belinda Lunnay
- 'Workplace impacts on doctors’ mental health: An Australian public hospital ethnographic study' – Presented by Kristen Foley (Researchers: Kristen Foley, Belinda Lunnay, Sharon Lawn, Michael Baigent, Mandi Baker, Paul Ward)
- 'What women want?: Exploring alcohol marketing on bottle labels using visual ethnography' – Presented by Kristen Foley (Researcher: Kristen Foley)
- 'Determinants of longevity among older rural dwellers in Kilimanjaro region, Tanzania' – Presented by Associate Professor Lillian Mwanri (Researchers: Lillian Mwanri, William Mude, Halay Gesesew, Tafadzwa Nyanhanda, Bernard Ngowi)
- 'Perilous Medicine in Tigray: A Systematic Review of Call to Action' – Presented by Dr Nelsensius Klau Fauk (Researchers: Hailay Abrha Gesesew, Hafte Kebede, Kenfe Berhe, Nelsensius Klau Fauk, Paul Russell Ward)
- 'Understanding the quality of life of Indonesian PLHIV in rural-urban areas in Indonesia' – Presented by Dr Nelsensius Klau Fauk (Researchers: Nelsensius Klau Fauk, Hailay Abrha Gesesew, Lillian Mwanri, Karen Hawke, Paul Russell Ward)
- 'Strengthening Responses to Maternal Mental Illness: Findings from the Acorn parenting program' – Presented by Dr Paul Aylward (Researchers: Paul Aylward, Anne Sved-William)
- 'Traditional male circumcision and HIV transmission risk among men: a systematic review' – Presented by Gregorius Abanit Asa (Researchers: Gregorius Abanit Asa, Nelsensius Klau Fauk, Paul Russell Ward)
- 'Using social practice theory to examine parenting: A scoping review' – Presented by Caitlan Mclean (Researchers: Caitlan Mclean, Linda Slack-Smith, Paul Ward)
- 'Natural parenting and oral health: A balance of omissions and commissions' – Presented by Caitlan Mclean (Researchers: Caitlan Mclean, Linda Slack-Smith, Paul Ward)
- 'Social-class differences in women’s trust in messaging about breast cancer and alcohol' – Presented by Dr Belinda Lunnay (Researchers: Belinda Lunnay, Samantha Meyer, Megan Warin, Carlene Wilson, Ian Olver, Sara Macdonald, Kristen Foley, Paul Ward)
Photo credit: Public Health Association of Australia