Tackling rural health inequities through research connections

  • Associate Professor Catherine Hawke.

Associate Professor Catherine Hawke.

University of Sydney
Karen Paxton,
Public Officer, Western NSW Health Research Network

In 2013, during a meeting at the Orange Aboriginal Medical Service, someone asked ‘how do you actually find local researchers?’. This unassuming question led Associate Professor Catherine Hawke to establish the Western NSW Health Research Network (WHRN).

Catherine is the Deputy Head of School at the University of Sydney School of Rural Health, based in Orange in central-western NSW. After graduating from the Sydney Medical School, she completed her Public Health Physician training in the UK. Taking up the position of Director of Public Health in Hastings, Catherine developed partnerships to provide public health programs to tackle inequalities in an area of socioeconomic disadvantage.

On her return to Australia, she redirected this passion toward addressing rural health inequities. Believing partnerships were key, Catherine’s aim for WHRN was to provide a platform for linkages among the limited health research workforce in the western NSW region, to support identification of joint research priorities and to build capacity for multidisciplinary local health research. The primary aim of WHRN is to tackle rural health inequities by supporting connections between rural health organisations, clinicians and academics from universities within western and far-western NSW.

Catherine has been Co-Chair of the network since inception, and her leadership and development has fostered many exciting research conversations and partnerships. Her objective is to demystify research and make it achievable and enjoyable. Through WHRN, she has achieved this aim in spades. Under her leadership, the network has not only been sustained but has grown over the last eight years, to become a health research collaboration between western and far-western NSW Local Health Districts, universities, primary healthcare providers, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations and non-government organisations.

The network membership covers a combined footprint of 444,949 square kilometres and serves a population of 307,000 in locations ranging from the larger regional cities of Dubbo and Orange, through to the more sparsely populated far-western district. Bringing health service providers, clinician researchers and academics together across this vast footprint in a ‘pre-Zoom’ era was a priority. The network held its first annual conference in 2013, showcasing emerging research from western NSW.

In 2018, the Western NSW Local Health District funded over 30 competitive scholarships to send remote clinicians to the face-to-face 2019 WHRN symposium held in Dubbo, with a significant number having never attended a research conference before. In 2020, the WHRN symposia reached 574 attendees.

The cumulative impact and contribution of these conferences cannot be overstated, as the network busily prepares for its ninth conference in late 2021. As one symposium attendee put it: ‘The WHRN symposium is a wonderful opportunity to hear what is happening in the research field, learn from experts and for emerging researchers to share with the audience their studies.’

WHRN also supports virtual research networking opportunities and workshops. A monthly newsletter distributed to over 460 subscribers details the latest rural health research, news and events. The network’s activities are now supported by organisational member fees, demonstrating significant regional support.

The growth and consolidation of the network are largely due to Catherine’s ability to connect with people, and to nurture and encourage novice and early-career researchers. With a welcoming and inclusive approach, she has a keen eye for people with talent and interest, and is skilled at creating opportunities for engagement, both in research and the activities associated with it. Her ethos is to encourage collaboration over competitiveness as a more effective means of making genuine change in rural health outcomes. Through WHRN she has created a space to do just that.

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