The University of Newcastle, Australia

Transforming public health research and practice

A globally experienced AHPRA registered nurse and public health academic, Professor Tony O’Brien deftly combines clinical practice, education and research to help improve healthcare for populations, with a special interest in men’s health.

As a public health and nursing researcher, Professor Tony O’Brien works with a broad range of people and communities, both locally and globally, to improve the delivery of healthcare, strengthen education for the next generation of nursing professionals and ensure research translates into clinical practice that improves lives.

While Tony’s 30-year nursing academic career has seen him inform better healthcare for youth, men and women, his latest research is focused more keenly around supporting men’s health—especially their reproductive health.

“One of my current research foci is focusing on prevention and changing men’s health behaviours to support young men with healthy lifestyles, reproductive and fertility health and to become great fathers, partners and grandfathers.”

At the forefront of innovation

Tony is a Registered Nurse (mental health/psychiatry and general medical surgical nursing) with widespread, global clinical experience in mental health, community case management, acute mental health intake assessment and aged care nursing.

“I come from the old hospital system. I was a registered psychiatric nurse and worked with the Royal Maudsley in London in 1980-81—Maudsley was known then as the mecca of psychiatry.

“My background in Australia has been in acute mental health care: in regional and rural hospitals (emergency departments), community case management and crisis intervention and liaison. I was on the team that established the mental health unit at manly hospital in the mid-eighties. I’ve tried to keep innovation and clinical recency going throughout my career”.

Following years of practical experience, Tony’s expertise has been called on to guide nursing professional education and best practice in Australia and worldwide (England, New Zealand and Singapore). While working at the University of Technology Kuring-gai Campus in 1986, Tony helped drive the Australian shift from hospital-based nursing education to higher education nursing courses with blended clinical experience.  Since then he has led and been involved with several successful ANMAC accreditations in different university nursing schools.

Tony was also involved in the first nurse practitioner accreditation process in NSW, led the first Regional Nurse Research and Clinical Training School at Manning Base Hospital for the University of New England, and recently helped inform the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia’s decision on overseas equivalence assessment. But Tony’s leadership in nursing education and practice is not confined to Australia. He has consulted on nursing curricula and clinical laboratories and programs for Siloam hospitals in Indonesia, Universiti Brunei Darussalam and the National University of Singapore, and continues to work as a visiting professor at Taipei Medical University.

By staying connected to clinical practice via the current Australian area health structure (health districts), Tony’s leadership in research and education is always anchored in patient experiences and real-world challenges—making his a highly practical and powerful approach to transforming public health practice.

“Being able to build research and development capacity for nurses on the ground in health services has been motivational. It’s exciting to hear nurses’ stories about their absolute concern for patients and their families and the innovative ideas they consider important to improve patient care.”

Research for better health

The breadth of Tony’s research impact is impressive and inspiring. Over three decades, Tony has helped generate novel research-based solutions to address a range of public health issues. This includes researching perinatal depression in men—still a poorly understood issue—and promoting awareness of anxiety as a medical condition requiring targeted, evidence-based inventions.

“There’s a lot of stress in the world these days, and there are many people who’d describe themselves as unhappy—however that’s defined. So we’re eyeing off post graduate approaches such as mindfulness, which is an increasing feature of mental health services using yoga, meditation, relaxation, self-reflection and gestalt therapy. We’re looking at the sort of interventions that help clinicians develop a broader skillset to assist consumers learn to deal with mental health issues.”

Tony’s supervision work with international graduate research students has also helped bolster aged care resilience, increase understanding of HIV infections and inform health programs for pregnant teenagers in developing countries. In 2018, Tony’s commitment to supporting emerging researchers was recognised when he was awarded the HMRI doctoral research supervisor of the year. Having clinical links with the local health district and HMRI research centre with its priority research centres (PRCs) is also a bonus working at Newcastle University where the focus is regional and global.

“I feel proud that my career background can support new masters and doctoral research students. Many of my international research students go home with the qualifications to make a difference in developing the professional base for nursing in their home countries.”

While diverse, Tony’s work has a common thread: the desire to improve consumer care.

“I’m very health services oriented, trying to focus on the types of questions you can apply to clinical practice. I’m not one of those programmatic people. For me, it has always been about pragmatics and collaborating. It’s around trying to focus on the things that interest you and what might help people in their daily lives.”

Tony is currently working with some of the great minds in men’s health research, including Professor Robert McLachlan (Monash IVF) and the University of Newcastle’s Laureate Professor John Aitken and Associate Professor Richard Fletcher, to dive deeper into the issue of men’s preconception reproductive health.

“I would like to see young men take a proactive approach to protecting their DNA, especially as evidence emerges of the epigenetic impact of toxins, smoking, drug intoxication, alcohol and obesity, and how they can affect our future generations.”

Tony has always favoured a multi-faceted, collaborative approach to research. In fact, his PhD into Koori identity and adolescence was one of the first conducted with Aboriginal people at Biripi Aboriginal Corporation Medical Centre which led to further studies on the topic of mental health and identity among Indigenous young men.

“We were interested in the social/cultural determinants of health outcomes for Indigenous people. For example, men’s physical and mental health and its effect on child development, family cohesion and stability."

Delivering world-class education

Tony has led nursing programs as a Head of School (Southern Cross University), Campus Head (Monash University), Director of Research and Training (University of New England) and Program Coordinator and Head of Discipline (University of Newcastle and Massey University). In his various academic roles, Tony’s aim has been to rework the curriculum at the undergraduate level, along with engaging mental health care practitioners.

“In nursing undergraduate degrees across the country, mental health nursing has taken a backseat, as the focus in the program is broader. What we’re finding is that there’s more attention on acute physical care than on mental health. So students are picking up the study of mental health at the postgraduate level to top up their baseline content.

“Perhaps for this reason the University of Newcastle Masters of Mental Health nursing is a very popular degree—it has been described by some as the best in the country.”

Tony has worked at the University of Newcastle twice, first in the 1990s, before coming back to the increasingly world-class university in the 2010s with new global experience and a passion for innovative learning.

“Stewarding graduates into the online and face-to-face postgraduate domain has been extremely rewarding. In the 1990s, we taught mental health skills using actors to enable students to develop competence in interviewing. Recently, we developed a virtual reality (VR) community nurse assessment using VR headsets. These innovative teaching and learning approaches have provided me with a great deal of satisfaction, particularly when you meet clinicians who say, ‘I remember you teaching us that at university’.”

Tony has a deep-seated desire to create impact in public health and nursing research and practice. Across his diverse career roles and interests, Tony asserts that his admirable commitment to elevating the nursing profession stems from old-fashioned persistence.

“As a fellow academic once said to me, ‘if you think it is a good idea someone else eventually will, so keep going!’.”