Interview on ABC Alice Springs with Rohan Barwick

The Minister for Aged Care and Minister for Indigenous Health, Ken Wyatt, was interview on ABC Alice Springs with Rohan Barwick on 4 July 2017.

Page last updated: 06 July 2017

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4 July 2017

Rohan Barwick: Eleven organisations from across the territory have today partnered up for what is being called a new health research hub, to be based right here in Alice Springs. It’s called the Central Australia Academic Health Science Centre; it was launched today by the Federal Indigenous Health Minister, Ken Wyatt. He joins me in the studio this afternoon.

Ken Wyatt, good afternoon to you.

Ken Wyatt: Good afternoon. It’s good to be here with you.

Rohan Barwick: So how did this research hub come to be?

Ken Wyatt: Well, the Commonwealth Government, the Turnbull Government, have been very keen to develop the whole construct around innovation and health, but I think more importantly it’s about bringing together individual organisations that are doing some outstanding work in key research areas. When you’re bringing them together under a centre of excellence, which is what this hub is all about, then you give them the capacity to access future Commonwealth funding to enhance the work they’re doing, but also to translate that into outcomes that work on the ground, and I think that’s the important aspect to all of this. And those there this afternoon would have heard Alan Cass talk about renal disease; you would have heard others talk about illnesses that interfere with the social fabric of a family, but an individual as well who is not all that well. And I think the Territory have been at the forefront of some of that incredible research of remote health and how we need to address issues.

Rohan Barwick: Eleven health organisations, as I mentioned, have come together to form this research hub. Any idea how this research will be co-ordinated?

Ken Wyatt: Look, I think they’ve been working together anyway. I certainly know a number of them; the work that they’ve been doing has been joint. They see the benefit of combining- well, what you’re combining is not only money; you combine intellect, you combine scientific research and scientific minds of people who have been in the area for a long time. But they’re also working with the providers in translating that into real action in improving health outcomes, and that’s the important journey in all of this.

Rohan Barwick: Now, I suppose in your first answer you were saying this helps them access money – and we know in terms of what’s coming from Federal Government it’s getting tighter and tighter every year – so does this also, I suppose, come out of necessity in a way, in the sense that because the money is drying up at a federal level, they need to work together, this hub needs to come together?

Ken Wyatt: No, far from it. The future research fund will certainly be a point of access for all of these research hubs. And this is the first that’s being led by an Indigenous organisation; I think that’s an outstanding aspect of the Northern Territory hub. But I think the other part of this is not about the funding, but about bringing all of their intellect together.

Rohan Barwick:: Can you name some of those who are in this research hub?

Ken Wyatt: Well, I look at Alan Cass, I look at Congress, I look at the Health Alliance here, the Central Australian Health Alliance, Flinders Uni, you’ve got Darwin Uni. So you’ve got university- and Baker IDI. All of them have got world leading researchers as individuals, but when you bring all those together as a co-operative alliance, you’ve got massive person power who can make a difference in giving solutions not only to the Northern Territory Government, but also the Australian Government.

And the other element to this that is important, that we’ve got to think about, is if they come up with health outcomes that are innovative and can be translated elsewhere around the world, then it means they’re creating an opportunity for economic growth as well within their hubs. But I welcome this one, because I think this one is very particular. It impacts on the northern regions of Australia, but it equally will have findings in terms of, say, renal disease that is important to all Australians, and that translational research is going to help bring about change.

Rohan Barwick: Now, it’s called the Central Australian Academic Health Science Centre. So is there actually going to be a physical building where this hub comes together?

Ken Wyatt: No, it doesn’t work that way. What you have is all of them, by being partners in this, have a virtual hub, and the combination of all of their resources gives it significant status. It also is deemed as a centre of excellence, given the combined skills. So this now elevates them to a much higher level, and it’s recognised internationally as well. So this outcome is absolutely brilliant for the Northern Territory because you are bringing health scientists, health practitioners, and Aboriginal community services together to find solutions to deliver better health outcomes, better services. So, look, I'm excited. I will come back and spend some time talking to them, because some of the priorities they’ve outlined, I certainly want to look at being a partner with them in the context of policy advice they give me, also potential changes that we need to consider in terms of service delivery as well.

Rohan Barwick:Now, I know when it comes to Indigenous health outcomes at the moment, Australia is not on track – and you only have to look at the latest Closing the Gap report to see things like, when it comes to child mortality and Indigenous health, that it’s not going brilliantly. So how do you think this research hub could change that?

Ken Wyatt: Well, if we look at child mortality as a measure, you make the assumption child mortality is only deaths from poor health. It’s not. It’s also deaths from drowning, it’s deaths from road traffic accidents. If there are homicides involving children, that also is part of child mortality. Now, some of those things governments can control, but there are other elements that we cannot control. And in a recent discussion with my department, I was saying that we need to separate the components of child mortality and those things that we can affect. Let’s look at how we are achieving improvement, and with vaccination rates being higher in the Aboriginal community than mainstream Australia, then I think that is also a telling factor of seeing potential gap closure in the future.

Our challenge is the complex health conditions, the level of renal disease that we’re seeing in rural and regional Australia. So we have to address those. Now, life expectancy is going to be impacted by so many other factors, and this alliance will come forward with solutions in the future that will help guide governments to better outcomes.

Rohan Barwick: By the same token though, there are certain other factors that you can’t separate from health – and I suppose specifically being the Indigenous Health Minister – I mean, one that’s come to mind is housing, for example, in remote communities. We know a lot of the health issues come from overcrowding and housing issues that are out bush. So how do you address those?

Ken Wyatt: Well, social determinants says you bundle them together; it is employment, it is education, it is housing, it is the socio-economic status or living in poverty. There are some other components to it as well. In research, West Australia undertook, under Professor Fiona Stanley with the Child Health Institute, research showed there – they’d surveyed 4000 Aboriginal families in WA – that if we focus on education, then we get better outcomes, better understandings and positioning of people to make informed consent to choices. What we found is girls who left school before Year 10 often had poorer health, early pregnancies, and substance abuse during pregnancy. Girls who continued beyond Year 10, went into Year 11 but left school, showed a different attitude and better responses to reducing harm on themselves. And all the girls who exited Year 12 went on to higher education or Better Pathways often delayed teenage pregnancies, set for themselves some pathways that went into career choices or further study.

And that in itself is a very telling story, because our women play a very pivotal role with families and do influence children. Fathers have an equal role, but mothers – because they’re there all the time – have that greater influence. And so education is very critical in all of this, and we’ve got to bring about that change. And it’s through education, I hope, that we see more Aboriginal nurses, specialists, allied health staff, and certainly Indigenous doctors. But ultimately, in a better economic position where, when you have a good salary and you’re able to access services to reduce harmful effects on your health, then we will see better outcomes.

Rohan Barwick: Now, you mentioned renal; I suppose the big thing when it comes to the health of- well, especially when it comes to diabetes is access to good food and healthy food out bush – which we know, again, is another challenge that doesn’t seem to be being addressed properly. How do you go about doing that in your portfolio?

Ken Wyatt: Well, I think we’ve got to acknowledge that not every community store or every community is in the same situation. I’ve been into the communities across this national where community stores bring in fresh fruit, veges, they’ve reduced chips, Chiko Rolls et cetera. So we’re seeing a change over a period of time of the benefit of having a policy and encouraging community stores to provide better food. Cost will always be an issue for really remote and isolated communities because of transporting it in, but I think that we’re seeing a much better and concerted effort by people within the health sector, particularly with children – getting them to eat healthier meals. And I look at some of the school breakfasts I’ve been to, there is fruit, there’s juice, and …

Rohan Barwick: [Interrupts] Are there examples in the Territory of places you’ve seen?

Ken Wyatt: Even out in [indistinct]. I was- one community where the meal served was really healthy and the kids were loving it. In WA, there is EON Foundation, which is working with schools. They’re growing vegetables and fruits within school gardens. They’re teaching the kids how to cook those vegetables, so when they grow them they watch them grow and then they cook them at school. But the result of that is some of the kids are now going home and growing their own vegetables. So it’s had a positive impact. I can’t eat raw broccoli, but I was watching a group of kids eating raw broccoli and saying it tastes like walnuts. To me, I prefer it steamed and with a bit of flavouring on it.

Rohan Barwick: Now, Ken Wyatt, you said that you were keen to come back and sort of see this research hub in action. What would you like to see next time, I suppose, you visit as the Indigenous Health Minister for this hub to be doing, for it to, in your mind, prove that it is doing something and prove its worth?

Ken Wyatt:Look, I think if I look back on the last 10 years of all of those organisations, they are producing research that has outcomes focused on improving- for example, Baker IDI with cardiovascular health. Their research shows that there has been some improvement, but not sufficient, that we’ve still got a lot of work to do on reducing obesity, encouraging people to better understand their heart, the way it works, and certainly have the frequency of tests that you would normally have to make sure that your cholesterol levels are at the- the good cholesterols were at the level it should be and the bad ones were supressed.

They’ve also brought forward information about compliance with statins – some of the treatments that are needed – but exercise is the other big issue that they raised. And so just that combination alone, combined with all the evidence that have been brought forward, now means that they will combine their understanding and knowledge and look at a population approach, which I think will be extremely helpful for our nation.

Rohan Barwick: Ken Wyatt, it’s an incredibly complex topic and hopefully one we can chat about again in the future, but appreciate your time this afternoon.

Ken Wyatt: No, look, I look forward to coming back and talking with you again in the future when we have further discussions, because I certainly want to look at partnering with them on some of the things that they’re doing.

Rohan Barwick:: Ken Wyatt, thank you very much.

Ken Wyatt: No, thank you.

Rohan Barwick: That’s Ken Wyatt, he is the Federal Health- Indigenous Health Minister, sorry I should say. In town today to launch what is being called the Central Australia Academic Health Science Centre – which is basically a partnership of 11 organisations from across the territory as part of a new health research hub.


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