Dr Johanna Birrell
University of Sydney
3 April 2024

Dr Johanna Birrell is a general physician and advanced trainee in public health medicine. Dr Birrell has trained in both Australia and New Zealand and has a particular interest in rural health, Indigenous health, and health services research. Dr Birrell is completing her postdoctoral studies at the University of Sydney with concurrent clinical work. Her research explores geographic variation in kidney failure epidemiology and access to care across Australia and New Zealand. Dr Birrell has received awards including the Royal Australasian College of Physicians 2023 Aotearoa Trainee Research Award for Excellence in the Field of Adult Medicine and the Gerry Murphy Prize in 2022.

Kidney failure is an increasingly important public health issue in Australia and New Zealand. The number of people receiving kidney replacement therapy (either living on dialysis or with a kidney transplant) has increased by more than four-fold across Australia and New Zealand over the past 30 years (to more than 34,000 people in 2022) and is projected to continue to rise. 

Effective health service planning requires detailed and accessible regional data, to ensure that under-served population groups are identified and receive additional health support. My PhD involves use of data linkage, geo-spatial mapping, and patient interviews. 

Our research team are analysing which communities across Australia and New Zealand are most affected by kidney failure, face the greatest difficulties in accessing care, and the contributing factors. 

We are creating interactive maps to support targeted prevention initiatives and health service improvements. The research aims to provide the foundation for a long term bi-national kidney failure strategy that addresses geographic differences in need and can be updated over time.

The burden of kidney failure in Australia and New Zealand is anticipated to increase dramatically over coming years. Detailed epidemiologic data is needed to ensure that under-served population groups are identified and receive additional health support.

This project will evaluate geographic and socio-economic variation in the epidemiology of kidney failure across Australia and New Zealand, through a public health and health services research lens. 

Detailed geo-spatial maps of regional kidney failure rates, trends and paired health service provision will be created to inform health service planning and targeted public health prevention strategies.

I am very honoured to receive the Gustav Nossal Award, which reflects the support I have received from many dedicated, inspiring supervisors and colleagues during my physician and public health training. 

Placements in regional areas of South Australia, the Northern Territory and New Zealand have created unique career opportunities. I would encourage early career researchers and clinicians to take up experiences in a range of healthcare settings, particularly rural and remote communities. The NHMRC Postgraduate Scholarship will be a great source of support and I am grateful for the flexibility it provides to complete this research in a part-time capacity. 

Dr Johanna Birrell, recipient of the 2023 NHMRC Gustav Nossal Postgraduate Scholarship Award.


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