Improving hearing health for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children

Combining Indigenous and western research methods, a new Flinders University project is aiming to stop Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from falling through the cracks when it comes to their hearing.

Recently awarded over $1.1 million from the National Health and Medical Research Council, the project will provide culturally appropriate pathways to ensure children are not missing out on crucial ear health checks.

“All children have the right to hear well as it is vital for language development,” says project Chief Investigator Dr Jacqueline Stephens, an epidemiologist from Flinders University’s College of Medicine and Public Health.

Dr Jacqueline Stephens

“For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children this is especially important as language is a key component of their identity and for the passing on of history and knowledge, as well as building relationships with family and Country.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have the highest prevalence of poor hearing health in the world, experiencing earlier, more frequent, more prolonged and more complicated ear disease and consequent hearing loss than other children, despite ongoing efforts to address the issue.

“Pathways for patients trying to access hearing services can be complex and without an overarching strategy, children can be lost from the system and miss out on important ear and hearing health checks,” says Dr Stephens.

“The ongoing high rates of ear disease among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children clearly demonstrate current approaches are ineffectual. We need to implement multifaceted strategies that are co-designed with community and implemented in culturally appropriate ways, to ensure they are effective, sustainable and successful.”

Together with project partners the University of Sydney, UNSW, Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation and Yadu Health Aboriginal Corporation, the team will review existing research and clinical data and run a trial across four sites in SA and NSW, designed to increase documented health examinations of children.

This will then be combined with Aboriginal yarning methods, to further understand lived experience, before creating clear actions to be implemented, in line with the Roadmap for Hearing Health, to ensure improved services.

The research team brings together early, mid and senior researchers and community members, who identify as both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, with a wide range of expertise, skill, and lived experience, ensuring the research is community-focussed, flexible, and evidenced-based.

“Together we will determine how the system is currently being used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and gain a greater understanding of access to care, delivery of treatment, and patients’ physical and emotional wellbeing,” says Dr Stephens.

“From there we will then design, implement, and evaluate a multifaceted strategy to address hearing health surveillance and management for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, starting with four communities across South Australia and New South Wales.

“Key to this will be engaging frontline staff and patients in the design and rollout of new digital health tools to improve healthcare processes and uptake.”

The project – Pathways For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Hearing Health: The PATHWAY Project – has been funded as part of the NHMRC’s 2021 Hearing Health Evidence Based Support Services grant scheme.

The scheme will see the Australian Government provide $7.5 million across nine projects to improve hearing health outcomes in Australia, with Dr Stephens project the second largest grant awarded.

Support from Flinders Foundation, along with funding from a Bank SA Foundation grant, helped to produce preliminary data that enabled Dr Stephens to apply for the NHRMC funding.

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College of Medicine and Public Health Flinders Health and Medical Research Institute