$5 million for Aboriginal-led team to improve maternal and child health research

Researchers and health professionals explain the Baby Coming You Ready? project, which will become part of a much broader research project investigating how to improve First Nations wellbeing during pregnancy, birth and the early years.

An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led team of medical and social health researchers has been tasked with investigating how to improve First Nations health and wellbeing during pregnancy, birth and the early years to help give more kids the best start to life.

The research team, led by UniSA clinical psychologist Associate Professor Yvonne Clark, a Kokatha/Wirangu woman, has been awarded $5 million in Australian Government funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Assoc Prof Clark, who in addition to her role as a research professor at UniSA is also a Research Fellow at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), is one of seven Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander chief investigators involved in the project.

Some of the language groups represented in the medical research project include Kuku Yalangji (Torres Strait), Trawlwoolway (Tasmania), Waljena and Nyinina (Western Australia); and Maintangk and Wotjobaluk (South East of South Australia).

The research aims to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their families in South Australia and Western Australia. The project will seek to identify strength-based, action-oriented approaches and interventions that value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' concepts of health and wellbeing, cultural practices, knowledge and learning.

Assoc Prof Clark says she’s excited to be involved in the innovative and inspirational research.

“Concerns about the gaps in this area have been raised at many of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community accountability forums and it is a privilege for our team to be entrusted to take this topic forward,” she says.

“Providing evaluated, increased and tailored support that empowers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents to access culturally safe services will improve the health and wellbeing of themselves and their children in the early years.”

There are five streams to the research, which will improve access to the healthcare women and their families will need. A culturally safe app, Baby Coming You Ready?, will help address health concerns. It is anticipated that more than 3000 women across eight locations in South Australia (SA) and Western Australia (WA) will be given access to the app, which was first co-designed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders in WA. It asks women and their partners a series of questions to identify their concerns before and after their baby arrives, assisting with referral to appropriate care.

This referral process is to enter a coolamon program of tailored wrap-around support to provide additional assistance and continuity of care for high needs families identified through the app. (Coolamon – or gulaman – refers to a traditional bark or wooden vessel used to carry items and babies). The research will utilise a decolonising methodology with services, seek appropriate data responses and support the development of a national network so professionals can promote lessons and ensure sustainability and transferability of their research.

As well as improving maternal healthcare knowledge, the program will directly address two Closing the Gap targets: healthy birthweights for babies; and children being developmentally on track in their early years.

NHMRC CEO Professor Anne Kelso AO says leadership by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers is one of the project’s strengths.

“The team will use tools designed with Elders to help mothers during pregnancy and after birth so that their babies can be strong and healthy,” Prof Kelso says.

Assistant Minister for Indigenous Health Senator Malarndirri McCarthy says the research will help provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families with access to culturally safe health care, “supporting mothers and families to help give children the best possible start in life”.

“Better outcomes are achieved when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are involved in the design and delivery of policies, programs and services that affect them,” she says.

The research team includes maternal, child health and early years clinicians, psychologists, epidemiologists, health science researchers, policy and decision-makers, partner organisations and implementation scientists, including national and global leaders.

The program is being funded for five years through NHMRC’s Targeted Call for Research scheme. Targeted Calls for Research are a one-time request for grant applications to address a specific health issue where there is a significant research knowledge gap or unmet need.

The Journey of Wellbeing is a short, animated film which highlights the impacts colonisation has had on the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The film was developed by the Baby Coming You Ready? team to assist health workers in developing a deeper understanding of the impacts of intergenerational trauma.