Tuesday, 2 February 2016

What demography contributes to rural health

Monash Rural Health's new Associate Professor of Demography, Dr Rebecca Kippen, became a demographer almost by accident. At the end of a business degree majoring in maths and accounting at Latrobe University Bendigo, one of her lecturers suggested she apply for a summer scholarship at ANU. No maths units were offered, but there was a unit in demography, which she’d studied briefly during her degree. So she applied and won the scholarship. “I didn’t realise it was a front for PhD recruitment,” she remembers laughing. It was a successful strategy; she ended up doing a PhD in demography with ANU.

Associate Professor of Demography, Dr Rebecca Kippen, explains her work.

A demographer’s work has two sides. The technical aspect involves measurement of population processes including births, deaths and migration. The broader explanatory aspect investigates why trends and patterns in populations occur and what the implications are.

Recent work commissioned by the Mildura Base Hospital Community Advisory Committee involved projecting Mildura’s population to 2040, taking into account likely future trends in birth, death and migration rates. Among other things, Rebecca and Monash colleagues found that virtually all Mildura’s population increase will occur over the age of 65 years, with an attendant rise in the need for aged-care services.

One of the most memorable projects Rebecca has worked on considered whether Australian parents want children of both sexes. The project used census and survey data to determine how likely parents were to have a third child if they already had two sons, two daughters, or one of each sex. The researchers found that parents were more likely to ‘try again’ if they had two boys or two girls rather than one of each, indicating a desire for a child of the missing sex. Qualitative interviews found that parents valued each sex equally, but they had different experiences with each.

Since 2007 Rebecca has been involved with the Founders and Survivors project. “The project is a lot of fun,” she says. A partnership including the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, Female Convicts Research Centre and a team of enthusiastic volunteer retirees, the project follows the lives of around 70,000 convicts transported to Tasmania between 1803 and 1853, and their descendants until World War One. It aims to compare changes in population health and resilience under stress.

Comparing populations is also the focus of Rebecca’s ongoing work with the School of Rural Health. She will now be working on a longitudinal population study with the Hazelwood Mine Fire Health Study. This is tracking the population of Morwell which was most closely affected by the 2014 Hazelwood fire and comparing it with a control population in Sale.

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