Photo by Janette Gay

Today the Hon Julia Gillard will launch a new Centre of Research Excellence on Policy and Health Equity. In this article Fran Baum and Sharon Friel introduce us to the work and goals of the new Centre. 

Fran Baum and Sharon Friel write:

Many Australians will live shorter lives than others, not because of their genetics or the lifestyle choices they make, but rather because of the conditions in which they live and the opportunities they have to lead a healthy life. Peoples’ wellbeing, poor health and early death is affected by three core things: basic material requisites for a decent life, control over our lives, and voice and participation in the policy decisions that affect the conditions in which we are born, grow, live, work, and age.

Employment, housing, social exclusion, education, income and wealth all combine to shape our health. Policies in each of these areas have a powerful impact on how long we live and how healthy we are. Differences in opportunities mean that Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people die on average around 11 years earlier than other Australians (AIHW, 2015) and low income people lose about 6 years of life compared to better off Australians (Leigh, 2013).

Today a new NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence is being launched by former Prime Minister the Hon Julia Gillard that is devoted to studying how government policies shape how healthy we are, how long we live and how this differs depending on who we are. The Centre, which is funded for 5 years, will have a special focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.  The Centre will research what factors influence how policies are devised and implemented in ways that do or not incorporate health equity. It will also develop new methods of assessing the impact of policies on health and health equity.

Fairness in policy has come to the fore-front of political debate in Australia in the face of 2014 budget proposals which were perceived to have been unfair in that they would adversely affect disadvantaged groups in the Australian community.  Our Centre will make an on-going contribution to these debates by producing evidence-based information on the extent to which policies in a range of sectors are contributing to fair health outcomes and will identify the opportunities and barriers to the development and implementation of public policy that contributes to fairness.

Our commitment to engagement in current policy debates is signified by the Symposium we are hosting immediately prior to the launch, which will focus on the value and importance of increased government revenue for action on social determinants of health equity. We are co-hosting this with the South Australian Council of Social Service and our main speaker will be Prof Ron Labonte (University of Ottawa) who is one of our Chief Investigators and will provide a global perspective on taxation policy and health equity. There will also be a panel discussion on these issues that will be broadcast in a few weeks on Big Ideas Radio National.

The Centre will build on the work of the WHO Commission on the Social Determinants of Health in which we were both involved as a Commissioner (FB) and head of the scientific secretariat (SF). One of our associate investigators is Sir Michael Marmot who chaired the Commission. A constant question in the deliberations of the CSDH was – “what is the evidence on what work’s to reduce inequities in health through action on social determinants?” Other people often said that we know what works but what we don’t know is how to make it happen and does it really have an impact. Another question often raised was how on earth to get this issue of health equity into the political and policy agenda.

We will answer these questions in various ways. One of the ways will be through the study of agenda setting, seeking to understand how social and health equity came to be included or not in key economic, social and health policies such as Medicare and Paid Parental Leave.  We will be examining the implementation of “real time” policies including the Closing the Gap strategy, the national broadband strategy and primary health care policy. We will be conceiving of policy through a complex systems lens and examining the way in which interaction between many factors affect policy outcomes. This will be done through the consideration of the ways in which international, national, state and local policies interact in local communities through a case study of the closure of the Holden Plant in northern Adelaide. At the end of our five years of funding we hope to have provided a good deal more evidence on all aspects of the policy cycle and the ways in which policies interact to affect health equity. We also hope that policy makers in all sectors will be using our research to inform policy development so that policy is fairer.

The Centre is collaboration between researchers at Flinders University, Australian National University, University of Ottawa, University of Sydney, University College London, the University of Oxford, Simon Fraser University and the University of New South Wales. The work of the Centre is guided by a Critical Policy Reference Group, chaired by Dr Pat Anderson (also chair of the Lowitja Institute). This group will provide us with a litmus test of the policy relevance of our research and help enable real time translation of the research into policy and practice. The Centre will train early and mid-career researchers in the art and science of public policy research for health, putting particular emphasis on the policy relevance of the research.

Today’s launch will be followed by a virtual launch of our website so please contact us if you’d like to be notified of the virtual launch and keep up-to-date with the Centre’s progress ([email protected] or [email protected])

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