The health impacts of housing: toward a policy-relevant research agenda

Public health Housing Indigenous health Diseases Australia
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This Investigative Panel examined existing international and Australian evidence around the links between housing and health to better understand the gaps in the evidence and suggest a way forward for research in Australia. The panel involved leading researchers, and public health and housing policy officials from across Australasia.

The panel found international evidence that housing improvements can improve health. Studies by the World Health Organization and the US based National Center for Healthy Housing have demonstrated that a person’s dwelling can affect their health due to physical, chemical and biological hazards, but also because of the social or community dimensions of housing . Large systematic reviews of evidence have also found that 'improvements in warmth, in particular, can lead to tangible improvements in health' (Thomson et al. 2009).

The review done as part of this study found there was a lack of Australian evidence in relation to housing and health more generally. Exceptions have been in the area of Indigenous health and housing (e.g. Pholeros et al. 1993) where studies have focused on the significant health impacts (e.g. in reducing the rates of eye and skin infection) of improvements in essential health hardware (such as clean running water and waste drainage). Other dwelling related concerns have centred on issues of climate change impacting on public health risks in indoor environments (Mudarri 2010). Tenure has also been an issue, with affordability concerns linked to anxiety (Yates & Milligan 2007), while concerns have been raised about the inadequacy of private rental properties in relation to age related health concerns (Phibbs 2009).

Based on input from the panel, the study authors have devised principles to identify suitable research projects. This included that projects should: leverage funding from wider funding sources such as National Health and Medical Research Council Partnership grants; cover a range of topics but especially those relevant to public housing; yield useful findings around dollar savings to health budgets; make good use of existing longitudinal data sets and multidisciplinary approaches; and draw on learning from overseas evidence (especially rigorous studies done in New Zealand).

The authors also identified some policy relevant projects that might advance the Australian evidence base such as:

  • examining the cost effectiveness of injury prevention programs in homes
  • defining a reliable overcrowding measure
  • measuring Indigenous housing quality
  • developing a Healthy Built Environments Index for Public Housing
  • examining the impact of housing (especially tenure) on loneliness and health.
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