Reflecting on 2021 for the Australian Journal of Primary Health

The past year has also seen significant changes in academic publishing. There has been an emphasis on rapid dissemination of research findings during the pandemic, increasing the prominence of pre-publication manuscripts and reinforcing the need for timely peer review. There has been a significant increase in the volume of manuscripts submitted, including to the AJPH.

At the same time, it is more difficult than ever to find peer reviewers for submitted articles. There has been a significant increase in the pressures on people’s time, through their paid jobs, but also because of juggling caring responsibilities during multiple lockdowns. Many people have been redeployed to support health systems and organisations to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Australian Government’s decision to not provide any financial support to universities during the pandemic has led to thousands of jobs being lost across the sector over the past year, with more losses likely to come. Precarious employment has become even more entrenched and fewer people are in jobs that include service to the profession as part of their roles. This leads to fewer people being able to undertake reviews at the time we need high-quality peer review most.
— Read on

It’s been a pleasure being an Associate Editor for AJPH, and it was good to have this opportunity to reflect on the pst year with Virginia Lewis and Jenny Macmillan as I’m stepping down.

Ensuring culturally diverse communities aren’t left behind on the road out of COVID

“We are always engaged after there is a problem – never upfront. The damage that has been done is quite severe on the ground and there is a lot of feeling that this is racist”- Randa Kattan, CEO of the Arab Council Australia

Croakey published a comprehensive summary of the think tank workshop hosted by the UNSW School of Population Health and organised by my colleague A/Prof Holly Seale. It features some inspiring practical activities led by culturally diverse communities, and the findings of research from across Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria.

“This current pandemic again highlights that there is a critical need to ensure services, communication and efforts and other pandemic strategies are designed and delivered in a culturally responsive way,” she said. Seale stressed collaboration with people from CALD backgrounds, including refugee communities, was critical to improving future pandemic plans as well as continuing ongoing COVID-19 activities.

Engage and empower: ensuring culturally diverse communities aren’t left behind on the road out of COVID

CALD Community COVID-19 Think Tank: Enhancing engagement

Monday’s Think Tank, organised by A/Prof Holly Seale and the Multicultural Health Communication Service, was a big success. More than 80 people from four states participated in the webinar and workshop sessions.

Lots of issues were discussed, but some of the recurrent themes were:

  • The critical need for concise, timely, and accessible plain English information for multicultural communities, in order to enable official translations, but also so that commmunities can draw on ths information for ther own communication and messaging.
  • We need to be genuinely working with people and organisations who are already working with CALD communities, and who are trusted by them. In doing this we need to reduce the emphasis on “pushing out” messages, towards more genine dialogue.
  • Emphasise and reocgnise the strength of communities and work that has alrady been done. We also need to recognise that most of this has been voluntary and unpaid – and that resources are needed.
  • While there has been fantastic work done at local and regional levels, there is a still a need for coordination at state and Commonwealth levels.
  • Better information-sharing would reduce duplication of resources, but also enable capacity sharing (culural understanding and advice, translation, interpreting, etc).
  • Written information isn’t enough. Audio and video information is more shareable online, and helps to overcome the complexitiies of written information (too much is still written at a Grade 12 level, needs to be at a Grade 8 level).
  • Speed is critical to combat misinformation.

The next step will be to share a report and the videos from the event, as well as further coverage by Croakey. In the meantime, the tweets below show some of the research and resources that were shared,

Still time to register for Monday’s webinar on Enhancing communication and engagement amongst people from CALD communities with public health strategies

There’s still time to register for this webinar organised by the NSW Multicultural Communication Service and UNSW:

Enhancing communication and engagement amongst people from CALD communities with public health strategies: Lessons learnt & gaps remaining

Mon, September 20, 2021, 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM AEST

Please note that the later workshops are now full, but people are very welcome to attend the webinar from 11am-12pm.

New Partnership Project seeking to develop a model of preventative healthcare for people with intellectual disability

The Minister today announced that our NHMRC Partnership Project led by Prof Julian Trolller on Developing a model of Preventative Healthcare for People with Intellectual Disability has been funded. It has an incredible team of Investigators and includes an impressive range of industry partners:

  • Agency for Clinical Innovation
  • Department of Health
  • Inclusion Australia
  • Aruma
  • Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care
  • Northcott
  • Down Syndrome Australia
  • Cancer Institute of New South Wales
  • NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission
  • Achieve Australia
  • Western Victoria Primary Health Networ
  • National Disability Services
  • NSW Ageing and Disability Commission
  • Central and Eastern Sydney Primary Health Network
  • Cancer Council
  • NSW Council for Intellectual Disability.

This project is exciting but I’m also conscious that it’s urgently needed because people with intellectual disabilities experience:

  • more than twice the rate of avoidable deaths
  • twice the rate of emergency department and hospital admissions
  • significantly lower rates of preventive healthcare, especially in primary health care.

I’m sure I’ll be posting more about this project in the coming years, but if you have ideas about relevant projects and activities I’d greatly appreciate hearing about them.

Teaching Heroes with Dr Joanna Winchester

It was such a delight to chat with Dr Joanna Winchester for her Teaching Heroes podcast.

We had a pretty wide-ranging discussion about health equity, how the COVID response could be exacerbating health inequities, vaccination for teachers, and how the return to classrooms might play out – including the role that HEPA filters might play.

We also briefly spoke about the early 20th-century movement for open-air schooling, and how some of these design ideas may make a comeback

Thanks Jo!

The letters in coloured circles problem: Student evaluation lets us improve, but only the things we can change

Five faces ranging from smiling to frowning, representing a scale

I found this post about student evaluations deeply affecting (CW: self-harm, general realness). The author’s experience resonated.

Every class, as we waited to start, I would ask my students (blue squares on the video conference screen) if they had any gossip. “I need something,” I said. “Any catfights? Anyone get really drunk and moon their neighbors? Anyone’s roommate cheat on their boyfriend? I am desperate here.”

Sometimes there would be a “no :(” in the chat.

Usually just silence.

Response to Student Evaluations, Sarah E. Smith

Online meetings and tutorials where nobody else turns on their screens have been the leitmotif of the past eighteen months. Online discussions that end up becoming discussions only between the teaching assistant and I, while some letters in coloured circles look on.

It’s not dehumanising exactly. It’s… nothing?

Why don’t they turn on their cameras? I don’t know. They might find it emotionally draining to meet via Zoom constantly. They might have a crappy internet connection. They might be doing other things. They might be self-conscious.

It’s not just students. Most meetings with staff are the same. A shared screen and a sea of letters in circles.

Connection seems to be missing. It’s not the medium, and it’s not solely the COVID pandemic. It’s something else.

Elaina Nguyen from Canada and fellow students from Australia, Hong Kong and Malaysia have argued that the values underpinning effective learning partnerships – respect, reciprocity, shared responsibility, authenticity, honesty, responsibility, inclusivity, reciprocity, empowerment, trust, courage, and plurality – all need to renegotiated not just for virtual environments, but also for our COVID world . They’re onto something.

Reading Sarah E. Smith’s post reminded me that some universities in Australia plan to publish subject evaluation metrics. There are proposals that students should be able to see aggregated subject evaluations, which are usually mean agreement scores with statements along the lines of “this subject enabled me to develop an understanding of the subject matter” or “this subject made me feel like part of a community”. Fair enough questions and useful information for teachers.

Student evaluation is unequivocally a good thing. It one of the main ways we can learn about what courses are like for students, and improve the way we teach.

The challenge is that often it’s not solely the teaching, the assessment activities or learning materials that students are evaluating.

Jenna Price captured the challenge at the heart of this in an article yesterday:

When students fill out those forms, they don’t answer the questions before them. La Trobe University lecturer Troy Heffernan has published widely on what students really mean when they rate subjects and the teachers who teach them. It’s about gender, race, accent. It’s also about institutional practices.

What goes wrong when uni students mark their teachers

Evaluation is only helpful if we’re able to act on the insights it offers. If students are using them to express dissatisfaction with student-to-teacher ratios, institutional policies, or have unacknowledged gender or racial biases , their usefulness evaporates. Similarly, evaluation scales become less useful for ongoing improvement if used as proxy metrics for poorly defined staff performance outcomes.

The way forward is clearly to develop more collaborative pedagogies based on students as partners , including co-creation of subjects and recognising students as consultants in that process.

At this time, what we need to improve as teachers probably isn’t captured through an agreement scale, valuable as that could be in the proper context. It’s solving the letters in coloured circles problem. It’s figuring out what’s really going on for the humans behind the circles.

I’d like to add one question to the student evaluation forms: why don’t they turn on their cameras?


Ntem, A., Nguyen, E., Rafferty, C., Kwan, C., & Benlahcene, A. (2020). Students as partners in crisis? Student co-editors’ perspectives on COVID-19, values, and the shift to virtual spaces. International Journal for Students as Partners, 4(2), 1–8.
Mercer-Mapstone, L., Dvorakova, S. L., Matthews, K. E., Abbot, S., Cheng, B., Felten, P., Knorr, K., Marquis, E., Shammas, R., & Swaim, K. (2017). A Systematic Literature Review of Students as Partners in Higher Education. International Journal for Students as Partners, 1(1).
Heffernan, T. (2021). Sexism, racism, prejudice, and bias: a literature review and synthesis of research surrounding student evaluations of courses and teaching. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 0(0), 1–11.

As schools open up, could HEPA air filters play a role in making them safer?

Associate Professor Donna Green and I had a chance to speak with Cassie McCullagh on ABC Radio Sydney’s Focus about high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in schools, based on our earlier piece at The Conversation.

Cassie McCullagh – HEPA filters in schools – 1 September 2021 Download MP3

Interestingly, I noted that a US academic has also written for The Conversation US about HEPA filters in schools, and sums up some of the equity considerations and limitations quite well:

In-room HEPA filtration is a long-term investment that supplements existing ventilation systems. And though COVID-19 was the impetus for the installation of many HEPA filters, they are effective for far more than just reducing exposures to airborne viruses. Well-maintained and properly functioning filtration systems also reduce exposure to wildfire ash that can penetrate buildings, as well as allergens and other unwanted particles like automobile exhaust, tire detritus and construction dust. 

But even the best indoor HEPA filtration cannot guarantee protection from airborne respiratory threats in schools. HEPA filters are effective only as part of an integrated approach. Ultimately, masks, distancing and reducing the number of students packed into tight spaces will determine how well students are protected from COVID-19.

COVID-19 has spurred investments in air filtration for K-12 schools – but these technologies aren’t an instant fix