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The Beyond Bushfires Symposium was an all-day event held at the University of Melbourne on the 30th October, 2014. It provided an opportunity for the study investigators to present and discuss our preliminary findings with participants and community members as well as service providers and representatives from government. I really valued the engagement leading up to the event, on the day and the feedback that we received afterwards. Leading up to the big day there was so much interest, and with the 140 seat room booked out we had many people discuss their interest in the study and perspectives on the findings.
We had a full agenda that included presentations on social networks, diverse responses and reactions, couples, families and children, psychological outcomes, anger, bereavement, relocation, and separation during and immediately after the fires. The day was packed with information that was quite overwhelming in terms of scope and depth. The surveys gave a sense of the extent and pattern of impacts on individuals and communities, and the in-depth interviews gave a sense of the personal and individual experiences that people went through. Lesley Bebbington, local resident and youth worker, shared her heartfelt, emotional and extremely personal journey over the last five years. We felt that hearing from someone who had personally experienced the bushfires gave an insight into the impacts it has on one person’s life before we went on to discuss the broader, population impacts of the bushfires.
The Symposium brought together study partners and community members to discuss their views on the research and its importance for everyone involved. This dialogue provided an insight into the extraordinary input by multiple parties throughout the study, including consultations with community members/groups, local and state service providers and government departments from planning and designing the study, to interpreting results. The large contribution to discussions and debates regarding different aspects of our findings was incredible and really fulfilled our aim for the day. You could feel the passion and emotions being expressed from those who our findings have direct influence on. The interactive sessions provided great insight into future directions and issues of interest to local bushfire affected communities.
Some people within the audience were interested in the study methods and conclusions and who was involved in forming these conclusions. Additionally, there were discussions around what we hadn’t included within the study and we acknowledge that we couldn’t include everything and we had difficulties in making decisions regarding inclusions. But there is a large amount of research being undertaken in this area, and we hope that others can cover the important components that are beyond the scope of our study.
A few community members were worried about their emotions and possible distress that could result, and showed great courage in attending the day. I’m so glad these people attended after their contributions to our study, the symposium gave us a chance to feedback our findings and get responses and inputs for future considerations. The Symposium was also a chance for us to thank everyone who has supported the research, and gave us an avenue to share bushfires experiences, and learnings to inform service providers and state level organisations.
If you would like to keep informed of the research, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Add to mailing list” and you will receive updates on our project, including access to the presentations on the day, once they become available. Additionally, visit our website to access the latest findings and publications www.beyondbushfires.org.au
Research findings have the ability to influence decisions – with regard to practice, policy and funding directions. It’s what makes the work of researchers satisfying – the thought that it may actually make a difference! But with this warm fuzzy feeling comes responsibility and the need to check our good intentions at the door – not necessarily to leave them there, but to submit ourselves to an open and honest conflict scan.
My work involves managing the editorial steps leading to the publication of public health research, and includes assessing the appropriateness of the composition of research teams as well as allocation of editorial advisors and peer referees to provide feedback on the research. In doing so I am very conscious of the conundrum that can arise, in identifying individuals with sound understanding of a topic to undertake the research (or review the research) yet free of any vested interest in the outcomes of that research.
There are rules and policies to identify, declare and manage potential conflicts of interest (COI), to “provide guidance to ensure that there is clarity and transparency in the declaration of any interests, a balance of perspectives, and guidance on disclosing and managing interests” (NHMRC 2012) around research committees and working groups developing guidelines, and for researchers and peer referees of researchers’ work.
The tricky part is that declaration statements often rely on the objectivity of the individual closest to the work – the researcher, the research committee member, the guidelines developer, the content expert chosen to peer referee the research. I hazard to guess that a failure to declare a potential conflict of interest associated with a particular task is usually not due to an underhanded intent of the researcher or research advisor, but due more to a lack of understanding of what might be perceived as a conflict. Most are clear about declaring any financial interest in the subject at hand or funds received by parties with an interest in the findings of a research work. But what of other influences that might openly or inadvertently influence the judgements and decisions of the researcher or research advisor? And can these influences coexist in a team without compromising the integrity and outcomes of a research task?
In noting my area of work, as Managing editor of the Cochrane Public Health Group, I also declare an interest (conflicting?) in this topic for authors, editors and advisory group members and peer referees of systematic reviews – of public health topics specifically. A recent report, prepared for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, contended that whilst the importance of attention to financial conflicts of interest has been addressed, there has been little guidance on how to manage the risk of bias for systematic reviews systematic reviews from nonfinancial conflicts of interest. The paper outlines definitions and examples of non-financial COI, and how these can be managed and assessed for their potential to bias their involvement in the review. It also confirms that authors may not be identifying themselves as having potential conflicts.
Non-financial COI in the AHRQ report was defined as “a set of circumstances that creates a risk that the primary interest—the quality and integrity of the systematic review—will be unduly influenced by a secondary or competing interest that is not mainly financial.” They include interests relating to the individual (intellectual, professional, career advancement), persons with whom the individual has a close personal relationship (e.g., family members, friends, colleagues), and interests held by the employer or organization with which the person is affiliated (e.g., employer, academic institution, specialty organizations, other professional organizations, and community interests).
Getting the authorship team right on a systematic review is important – with a need to include content expertise, methods knowledge and experience, as well as statistical and searching expertise. Bringing together a systematic review team that adequately balances essential content expertise with independence of judgment can be tough and requires open and deliberate choices for the lead author.
What is important to understand is that the identification and declaration of a potential COI and the management of that COI are two very different things. It is the latter that can ease the struggle between the need to be close to, knowledgeable, and dare we admit, passionate about a subject or content area, and the need to make objective decisions based purely on the information presented or available to the team. Once the risk of potential conflicts of interest is identified, based on the context of the topic, there are a range of options to managing the conflicts of interests within a research team. These range from disclosure followed by no change in the research team or activities, inclusion on the team along with other members with differing viewpoints to ensure a range of perspectives, exclusion from certain research activities (such as assessment of risk of bias in individual studies in the case of a systematic review), to exclusion from the authorship team entirely.
Not all conflicts of interest, once identified and acknowledged, lead to a compromised research project. Being upfront and declaring all potential conflicts, to the editorial team and in any associated publications, allows the reader to make an informed judgement about the trustworthiness of the research process and findings.
Written by Jodie Doyle
Managing Editor, Cochrane Public Health Group
A few years ago while studying the oral health of school children in Kerala, India, one of the schools I visited was a boarding school for orphaned children. It was obvious from just observing these children and through dental examinations that the health of these orphaned children was a lot worse than children from the non-orphanage schools in my study. While at the time I was doing my masters degree and did not have the liberty to pursue this issue further, I made a mental note that when I had settled down in my career I would re-visit this issue. Fast forward to 2013 (five years since I visited the orphanage in Kerala) and we (my wife and I) have set up the Health in Orphanages Project (HOPe), with support from University researchers and community partners, to explore the health of children residing in orphanages in India.
So what is an orphan – United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) defines an orphan as not only a child who has lost one or both parents but also those who have lost a father but have a surviving mother or have lost their mother but have a surviving father (1, 2). It is estimated that, as of 2010, there were 132 million orphaned children across the globe (about 2% of the world’s population), a shocking number. Of these children, 69 million were located in Asia, 53 million in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 10 million in Latin America and the Caribbean. India alone is home to 32 million orphaned children (~ 2.6% of India’s population or 7.5% of India’s child population). Yet it is quite rare for the local populace in India to encounter these children in their normal lives. The social structure in India has ensured that these children are a hidden and socially stigmatised community.
Photo of an orphanage from my last trip to India
In spite of such large numbers the available information on the health of children residing in orphanages, particularly in India, is very limited. The available information gave us some insight into the health of these children but again highlighted the need to work with this hidden section of the community that we call the ‘disadvantaged among the disadvantaged’. A parent-child relationship is important for the mental and physical development of the child and the absence of this relationship can be detrimental to their health. Such a separation can negatively impact on various aspects of their development, particularly in relation to their psychosocial, emotional and cognitive skills. The social disadvantage is due to the lack of social and cultural identity that growing up in a family would provide. A joint report by UNICEF, UNAIDS & USAID on orphaned children state that institutional care such as orphanages can be detrimental to the child’s development as they socially isolate the children, discourage autonomy, put the children at risk of losing their family and community identities, and fail to provide any mechanism to support a child’s emotional or mental needs (1). As a result of these issues, orphaned children generally have poor oral health; poor mental health; are malnourished; have low immunity; are prone to medical conditions such as HIV, cardiomyopathy, fetal alcohol syndrome, hepatitis C, otitis media & congenital adrenal hyperplasia; and recurrent episodes of diarrhoea, fever & cough (3, 5-10). These children, particularly girls, are at a high sexual risk which includes having sex at an earlier age, pregnancy and the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS (11-15). Also common among orphaned children are behavioural and cognitive issues such as thought problems, rebellious nature, aggression and being withdrawn (6, 7, 17). A study of children in Romanian orphanages found that due to ‘global neglect’ (when deprivation occurs in more than one domain of child development, such as language, touch and family support) the brain size of orphaned 3-year-olds was significantly smaller when compared to that of a normal child of the same age (16).
So it is quite evident that these children face additional challenges that impact on their health and wellbeing. However, without sufficient country/location specific evidence local program planners and policy makers will not be able to make a case for targeted interventions. We aim to provide this evidence and use the information from this research to determine the future direction of the project. Our first stage will be to explore the health issues affecting children residing in orphanages in the State of Kerala, which is located on the south-west coast of India. At present there are approximately 400 registered orphanages in the State of Kerala alone, with on average 100 children per orphanage (18). We envisage that through HOPe we will be able to provide the evidence needed to progress towards healthier and more socially inclusive environments for these children.
About the author: Bradley Christian is a Research Fellow at the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program, working on Teeth Tales – a community based oral health promotion intervention for pre-school children from a refugee and migrant background. Brad is a dentist with specialist training in Dental Public Health whose research interests are around social disadvantage, children and oral health.
- UNAIDS, UNICEF, USAID. Children on the Brink 2004: A joint report of new orphan estimates and a framework for action2004.
- UNICEF. Orphans. UNICEF Press Centre; 2012 [cited 2012]; Available from: http://www.unicef.org/media/media_45279.html.
- Thielman N, Ostermann J, Whetten K, Whetten R, O’Donnell K, the Positive Outcomes for Orphans (POFO) Research Team. Correlates of Poor Health among Orphans and Abandoned Children in Less Wealthy Countries: The Importance of Caregiver Health. PLoS ONE 7(6) 2012;7(6):e38109.
- International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) and Macro International. National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), 2005-2006 India. Mumbai IIPS2007.
- Watts H, Gregson S, Saito S, Lopman B, Beasley M, Monasch R. Poorer health and nutritional outcomes in orphans and vulnerable young children not explained by greater exposure to extreme poverty in Zimbabwe. Tropical Medicine and International Health. 2007;12(5):584-93.
- Erol N, Simsek Z, Munir K. Mental health of adolescents reared in institutional care in Turkey: challenges and hope in the twenty-first century. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry. [Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural]. 2010 Feb;19(2):113-24.
- Hermenau K, Hecker T, Ruf M, Schauer E, Elbert T, Schauer aM, et al. Childhood adversity, mental ill-health and aggressive behavior in an African orphanage: Changes in response to trauma-focused therapy and the implementation of a new instructional system. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health 2011, 5:29. 2011;5(29).
- Khare V, Koshy A, Rani P, Srilata S, Kapse SC, Agarwal A. Prevelance of Dental caries and Treatment needs among the orphan children and adolescents of Udaipur district, Rajasthan, India. The Journal of Contemporary Dental Practice. 2012;13(2):182-7.
- Lassi ZS, Mahmud S, Syed EU, Janjua NZ. Behavioral problems among children living in orphanage facilities of Karachi, Pakistan: comparison of children in an SOS Village with those in conventional orphanages. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 2011;46:787-96.
- Johnson DE, Traister M, Iverson S, Dole K, Hostetter MK, Miller LC. HEALTH STATUS OF US ADOPTED CHINESE ORPHANS. . 1996 Abstracts The American Pediatric Society and The Society for Pediatric Research (1996) 39, 135–135; doi:101203/00006450-199604001-008151996.
- Birdthistle I, Floyd S, Machingura A, Mudziwapasi N, Gregson S. From affected to infected? Orphanhood and HIV risk among female adolescents in urban Zimbabwe. AIDS 2008;2008:759-66.
- Dunbar M, Maternowska M, Kang K, Laver S, Mudekunye-Mahaka I. Findings from SHAZ!: a feasibility study of a microcredit and life-skills HIV prevention intervention to reduce risk among adolescent female orphans in Zimbabwe. J Prev Interv Community 2010;38:147-61.
- Gregson S, Nyamukapa C, GP GG, M MW, JJ JL, et al. HIV infection and reproductive health in teenage women orphaned and made vulnerable by AIDS in Zimbabwe. AIDS Care. 2005;17.
- S SK, Dunbar M, Minnis A, Medlin C, Gerdts C, NS Padian NS (2008) Poverty gi, and women’s risk of human immunodeficiency virus/AIDS. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1136: 101–110. Poverty, gender inequities, and women’s risk of human immunodeficiency virus/AIDS. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008;1136:101-10.
- Mmari K. Exploring the relationship between caregiving and health: Perceptions among orphaned and non-orphaned adolescents in Tanzania. Journal of Adolescence. 2011;34:301-9.
- Perry BD. Childhood experience and the expression of genetic potential: What childhood neglect tells us about nature and nurture. Brain and Mind. 2002;3(1):79-100.
- Baguma P. Assessment of psychosocial support programmes for orphans/vulnerable children in Uganda. International Journal of Psychology. 2012;47(1):467-77.
- List of charitable institutions. Thiruvananthapuram: Department of Social Welfare; [cited 2011]; Available from: http://www.old.kerala.gov.in/dept_socialwelfare/Grant-in-aid.htm.
Encouraging people to participate in research can be a tough gig. We are usually asking people to volunteer their time just for a small piece of information, which is sometimes only relevant and generalisable if large numbers provide this same, small piece of information. As researchers we know the enormous value that gathering this information can have to inform change at the policy, practice and the community level. But the general population sometimes does not place the same value on research or understand how important the research and outcomes can be. So, how do we encourage people to participate in research? And in particular, how do we encourage those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, where research may not be a common concept or practice.
I am currently working on a large scale child oral health research project entitled ‘Teeth Tales’, being conducted in partnership with government and community agencies and Australian families from refugee and migrant backgrounds. Oral health is included in the Victorian Health and Wellbeing Plan 2011 – 2015 as a priority area for preventative health, as it is one of the most preventable diseases, particularly for children. Tooth decay is Victoria’s most prevalent health problem, with more than half of all children and almost all adults affected (1). Initial qualitative research was conducted with mothers from Lebanese, Iraqi and Pakistani backgrounds exploring oral health practices, beliefs and service needs. We learnt about many cultural differences and the real interest these communities have to learn more about keeping their children’s teeth healthy. From this earlier research, a community-based trial was developed to include an oral health education program for parents delivered by a trained educator from the same cultural background. This peer educator is able to talk about traditional beliefs and practices and introduce parents to the key Dental Health Services Victoria oral health messages of ‘Eat Well, Drink Well, Clean Well and Stay Well’. The program also included a site visit to local dental and family services. In addition to this education program, local services underwent a review of their practices to improve their competence in dealing with culturally diverse communities.
Photo from: http://www.dshs.state.tx.us/dental/promo_oh.shtm
For this trial we recruited Lebanese, Iraqi and Pakistani families in metropolitan Melbourne with children aged 1 – 4 years. We wanted to make sure that the research was as useful and relevant to families as possible so we sought the advice and expertise of relevant cultural organisations. They provided guidance on the cultural practices and beliefs of the target cultural groups, and the cultural appropriateness of our research methodology. They also helped us to recruit families, conduct the trial, interpret the findings and they provided language assistance. If it wasn’t for these partnerships we may have been lucky to recruit 10 families rather than the over 500 families who ended up participating! The advice and support of these cultural partners is invaluable when trying to recruit families with a refugee or migrant background, some of whom may be unfamiliar with research conduct, health promotion and the Australian health system.
In order to evaluate the success of the program we needed to check children’s teeth before and after the trial, as well as ask parents to complete a questionnaire. The free dental screenings for the children proved to be a key incentive for parents to register for the study. Oral health is one of the most contentious current health issues in Australia as access to fast, affordable dental care is often not available. The private dental system is run as a business and many walk out of the service with an expensive bill. The public dental system has huge waiting lists and strict eligibility for access. We found that many parents were not aware that children and refugee and asylum seekers in Victoria are considered a priority group for public dental services access. So when our study offered a free dental screening for children many families jumped at the opportunity!
The strategies outlined above helped us to successfully recruit over 500 families into our study. Engaging culturally and linguistically diverse groups in research can be difficult, but is very important, particularly for health services that need to respond to the evolving health needs of refugee and migrant and groups.
To read more about the ‘Teeth Tales’ study please visit: http://mccaugheycentre.unimelb.edu.au/research/current/intergenerational_health/teeth_tales
Blog by Dana Young
Research Fellow, Child Public Health
The University of Melbourne
- NACOH. 2004, Healthy mouths healthy lives: Australia’s National Oral Health Plan 2004-2013. Adelaide, National Advisory Committee on Oral Health, Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council.
In an academic work environment you could say that one of the ‘perks’ is representing your work, or collaborative work, at academic and topic-focused conferences (However in comparison to my days working in the private health industry, business travel in the University signals a more economically responsible mode, namely frequenting the back of the plane rather than the upper deck on long haul flights!). This year has been no exception for me, being fortunate to attend a range of conferences on topics of public health, health promotion, knowledge translation and exchange, and obesity prevention.
So we pack our bags, roll up our posters and prepare our presentation slides at the eleventh hour – but what for? What motivates researchers and practitioners to scramble to find funding so we can run laps of the conference circuit? What benefit does our research and its end-users gain from us attending these forums?
Recently I attended with colleagues what might be considered seminal conferences in public health research/practice/policy: The World conference on Health Promotion by the International Union for Health Promotion and Education (IUHPE) – in Pattaya, Thailand, followed by the Public Health Association of Australia annual conference – in Melbourne. We’ve also attended emerging conferences in our field of interest: The “FUSE 2nd Conference on Knowledge Exchange in Public Health: How to get practice into science” – in Noordwijkerhout, The Netherlands; and the “2nd Annual NHMRC research translation symposium: from Bench to Bourke” – in Sydney. Note the similar style of the long-winded titles on the last two conferences on knowledge translation… For people interested in communicating and doing ‘real world’ research, you’d think we’d have more succinct event titles!
Aside from enjoying a working week near a sandy beach or among fields of tulips, I believe that conference attendances (and active participation obviously) are a necessary perk if we want our research to be useful and utilised, and if we want to link our ideas to a broader national and international dialogue. At these conferences, I took away a few points about the issues being explored and debated, as well as some reflections on what we gain from attending, and thus what we offer as research practitioners. Here’s a wrap-up, fresh from my suitcase.
Salient issues that resonated for me as a conference participant:
- Social justice concerns are high on the agenda in public health and health promotion.
All the policy, practice and research communities represented at theses conferences appear to be very dedicated to chipping away at the systemic barriers to attainment of good health. Good thing.
- Public health and health promotion decision-makers, advocates and researchers need to better articulate what we do, and what good it does.
What is public health and health promotion anyway? Sure, we all know that the sum of our parts is more than water sanitation and quit-smoking campaigns, but try explaining that to a new acquaintance at a backyard barbeque. And what are the benefits of investing Government dollars in preventive health? Can anyone tell me the economic return on investment of health promotion partnership meetings, or the productivity gains from banning junk-food ads in kids TV viewing hours? Either way, a strong theme that continued to emerge for me was the sheer lack of public outrage when public health research funds are cut, or when a health promotion unit is shut down.
- Working across sectors means singing from the same song-sheet.
I often go to conferences realising that I’m preaching to the converted. It’s not a new concept that public health and health promotion decision-makers need to be working with other sectors like planning, transport and education – this message has continued to come through, but more focused on tweaking our agendas and language, to make it easier to work together. Finding processes to allow cross-sectoral work are getting more focus too – like embedding health impact assessments into local government’s power. We might be a long way away from that but in the meantime we can at least coordinate the message.
- We keep on with research to know that we are doing the right things, and doing things fairly.
Not all of the conferences I went to had an ‘academic’ or scholarly focus, but thankfully, I walked away from each and every session knowing that the majority of attendees valued the role of research and evaluation, rigorous methods, or evidence-informed decision-making – all of this is achieved by furthering research and academic inquiry.
- It takes specific skills to advocate, and without advocacy, our concerns won’t be heard.
Like me, you might not always feel comfortable with the term advocacy so let’s call it leadership, or whatever you like – either way, see points #2 and #3 above. We need to find smarter ways of communicating evidence and knowledge to influence decision-making.
- We all love a framework!
I think every conference session I went to had a ‘framework’, ‘model’ or ‘tool’ which was ‘guiding’ or ‘underpinning’ or ‘informing’ their approach. Hopefully this is more than jargon, and actually means rigor and systematic ways of conceptualising and working – whether you’re in research, practice, or somewhere in between. So I think it’s a good thing, as long as we don’t get lost in translation!
What I think we gain and can offer from active participation at conferences:
- Disseminating research and practice.
This is an obvious benefit, and the one most often used by conference organisers to lure you into spending $900 of your precious budget to be out of the office for two days, subjected to death-by-powerpoint, and forced to catch up on all your emails late at night after the welcome reception. But in order to ‘keep it real’ and stay connected to the broader health and wellbeing dialogue, attendance and active participation at conferences are actually an efficient way to communicate your work. Ok, so I might not feel that way when I’m standing next to my poster watching conference delegates walk straight past, making a bee-line for the coffee stand without an interest in my glossy artwork and data. But if you’re proactive to network, interact, present and tweet, it really is an chance to build the profile of your/your team’s work, and get others to know who you are and what you do.
- Networking and engagement.
By signing up for conferences, we open ourselves to public scrutiny of our work, and let’s not forget those awkward moments of introducing yourself to that esteemed Professor or Policy-maker who has no idea who you are. But this is almost always a positive outcome. We meet new people with similar passions, discuss different contexts and ways of working, and maybe even score a new collaboration, friend, or new LinkedIn connection. The use of social media is really growing at public health conferences, engaging both participants and those who couldn’t attend in person. I’ve come away from every conference with lots of new follows and followers, which also boosts engagement of the research group and links in our other collaborators.
- Broadened thinking, new perspectives.
Sitting in an early morning plenary deciding what to tweet really makes you think about what you think about the topic. In my early days at conferences I probably didn’t reflect much, and was more focused on staying awake and when the next coffee break was. But as a more experienced practitioner, I find that I am continually thinking, appraising, analysing and reflecting on what’s being said. I ask more questions, and use the breaks to chat (to anyone who’ll listen) about the perspectives emerging at the conference.
After meeting such a range of different people from different contexts, doing different jobs and working in different ways – you realise that you’re all doing good stuff and sharing the goal to promote public health. It’s a nice confidence boost to have your work verified in an international or national context, and helps you feel like you’re on the right track.
- A break from routine.
I work in an office, and I can’t say I get regular tea-breaks with cake and tropical fruit, nor am I offered a selection of mini-baguettes for lunch. Conferences are good for this. But I do think it is good to get away from the desk and reflect on your practice within a broader context. I always enjoy catching up with colleagues old and new, who are equally as nerdy and equally keen to get out of the office for a few days. Another emerging trend at conferences which is a very welcome break in a workday routine is tea-break flash-mob dances. Enough said.