News story 23rd Jun 2016

Mollie Holman Medal for Centre for Health Economics researcher

This year’s Mollie Holman Doctoral Medal was awarded to Dr Rohan Sweeney, Research Fellow with the Centre for Health Economics. The Medal is one of the most prestigious Monash University research awards and is given to the most outstanding PhD thesis in each Faculty.

Professor Barbara McPake, Director of the Nossal Institute at the University of Melbourne was one of Dr Sweeney’s examiners. She remarked that Dr Sweeney’s research addresses an important, original question.

“It applies a rigorous approach that is carefully documented and applies current methodological developments. The conclusions are important and have the potential to make a significant contribution to global health debates,” Professor McPake wrote.

Duncan Mortimer and Rohan Sweeney

Associate Professor Duncan Mortimer and Dr Rohan Sweeney

In his statement of support for Dr Sweeney, his primary supervisor Associate Professor Duncan Mortimer wrote:

“Throughout his candidature, Rohan demonstrated an aptitude for maximising the impact of his research via rapid dissemination in quality journals.”

He added that Dr Sweeney’s work has already been published in three peer-reviewed journals, including Social Science and Medicine and Health Economics, which are A* journals, which he noted is a “stellar output”.

The research

For his thesis entitled The Economics of Coordinating health Aid: Investigating the Sector Wide Approach, Dr Sweeney examined the impacts of the Sector-Wide Approach (SWAp), which is an alternative to the more traditional project-based way donors have delivered health aid to lower-income countries.

“A health SWAp is an agreement between a government and donors to coordinate health aid funded projects, in order to reduce fragmentation and duplication of effort,” explains Dr Sweeney.

“In addition, a health SWAp increases the recipient government’s control over their aid program, resulting in health aid that is better aligned with their priorities. Ultimately, the hope is that this will deliver an improvement in health for the population.”

Despite the fact that there is over 20 years of experience with health SWAps, there is little evidence about their impact. Most evaluations that have been done, use a case-study approach, which doesn’t control for important global and country-specific changes.

Dr Sweeney addressed this major limitation through the analyses he used in his thesis. He applied rigorous econometric methods that had never been used before to identify important SWAp impacts on development assistance for health funding flows and health outcomes.

“What I found was that health SWAps have increased recipient control over the aid programs, just as was hoped. The amount of health aid delivered as untied sector support (allowing aid recipients to set their own course) significantly increased.”

“In addition, and most importantly, SWAps have increased aid effectiveness, reducing infant mortality rates by about 6% in implementing countries,” he adds.

This is research conducted with rigour and passion on a question of global significance. Its findings have the potential to have real impact on population health in some of the world's poorest nations.

Associate Professor Duncan Mortimer

Dr Sweeney indicates this research is timely for several reasons.

“Recently, we’re seeing donor interest in SWAps fading. There is a suspicion that they have failed to deliver on their promise. In addition, in this more austere post-GFC time, decision-makers are increasingly expressing the view that their voters are concerned about providing measurably effective aid.”

These concerns are understandable, says Dr Sweeney, but the evidence underpinning them are weak.

“The findings of my thesis show that donors, development agencies and aid recipient governments should re-engage with health SWAp. Their effectiveness takes time to come to fruition and the biggest impacts are observed in settings where SWAps have had time to mature,” he concludes.

"This is research conducted with rigour and passion on a question of global significance. Its findings have the potential to have real impact on population health in some of the world's poorest nations. The technical skills and content knowledge Rohan demonstrated in its completion will form the foundation for what I'm sure will be a stellar research career,” said Associate Professor Duncan Mortimer.

Dr Rohan Sweeney was awarded the Alan Williams Fellowship, a prestigious fellowship usually awarded to mid-career academics.  As part of this fellowship, he spent the last three months at the University of York’s Centre for Health Economics – the world’s leading health economics department.

He says that winning the Mollie Holman Medal was quite a surprise but a real honour as well.

“I couldn’t have done it without the support and generosity of my supervisors Associate Professor Duncan Mortimer and David Johnston, whose doors were always open to chat through issues and challenges. Winning the award gives me confidence that I have the capacity to build a career in applied research and hopefully make a meaningful contribution to global health policy.

I also must thank my wife for her endless encouragement and my fellow PhD students at the Centre for Health Economics for their good humour and support during the PhD,” Dr Sweeney says.

The Mollie Holman Medal for Thesis Excellence was established in 1998 and is named after the late pioneering physiologist, Emeritus Professor Mollie Holman AO, in honour of her significant contributions to science and education. More information can be found on the Monash University website