IEHU case study gets an ‘A’ rating for innovation dividend

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The Indigenous Eye Health Unit's outstanding contributions have been recognised with an 'A' rating in a national assessment of the 'innovation dividend' of university research.

The Indigenous Eye Health Unit (IEHU) is part of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne. The IEHU's 2008 National Indigenous Eye Health Survey and its overall program since the unit started that year formed the basis of a case study submitted to the Excellence in Innovation for Australia Research Impact Trial. Led by Melbourne University Laureate Professor Hugh Taylor AC, the IEHU supports trachoma elimination and conducts research and policy development by exploring barriers and enablers for Indigenous people accessing eye health services. Its work on screening techniques and proactive health initiatives in areas with endemic trachoma has led to dramatic improvements, including a progressive decrease in trachoma cases in Western Australia and the Northern Territory between 2008 and 2011.

The significant improvements have continued in 2012, when there was a 40% reduction in trachoma cases in Western Australia.
Professor Taylor says he is "absolutely delighted" with the 'A' rating the IEHU received from the trial's assessors in late 2012; this designated that the unit's work had "outstanding impacts in terms of reach and significance". Its submission was rated among the top 20 of 162 submissions from 12 Australian universities participating in the trial. The 12 universities were from Australia's top Group of Eight (Go8) and the Australian Technology Network (ATN). "We like to think we're doing a good job and we're working hard and that we are making progress, but to have other people look at it and believe that we're doing so as well is just terrific," he says.

The IEHU's National Indigenous Eye Health Survey canvassed 30 sites across Australia to provide the critically needed evidence base for developing indigenous eye health policy. "The survey showed that Aboriginal people had six times as much blindness and three times as much vision loss as mainstream Australians. Almost all of this was unnecessary and about one third of the people had never had an eye examination," Professor Taylor says. The survey results formed the basis of an extensive range of intensive programs that have been developed in consultation with Indigenous communities. They have included:  

  • assessing current services
  • identifying barriers to providing eye care
  • developing effective solutions and costing them
  • creating the successful 'clean faces, strong eyes' community education programs, and
  • developing a roadmap of 42 recommendations for closing the gap on indigenous eye health. 

Professor Taylor applauds the national assessment trial's innovative approach of using case studies as opposed to traditional measurements, such as academic citations, to gauge the external relevance and impact of research. "What we really need to do is to transform some of our research findings into practical applications that change people's health or life or vision," he says. "I'm very strongly of the notion that you need to look at that ongoing community benefit from the research." "I'm not saying one shouldn't do pure research but so many of our researchers will say, 'Well I've published the paper, that's the end of my job' and expect everybody to pick up that great finding and do something with it – but that's not the way it is. You need to keep pushing to ensure those important research findings actually get translated and used by the community."

Among Professor Taylor's challenges for 2013 is to generate ongoing funding for the IEHU. "All our work over the last five years has been totally funded by private donations and some funding from the University," he says. "Our generous supporters have included Harold Mitchell and the Potter Foundation but now we're trying to get funding for our little unit itself so we can keep doing our work."

Caption: Yamba the Honey Ant with Milpa the Trachoma Goanna.