Leading health sociologist joins faculty

30 September 2019
Taking a social sciences approach to solving health problems
Professor Alex Broom is an internationally renowned sociologist whose research focuses on the social dynamics of cancer, palliative and end-of-life care, and the global challenge of antimicrobial resistance.

What is your professional background and how did you come to join the University?

Headshot of Professor Alex Broom

Professor Alex Broom is joining the School of Social and Political Sciences.

I am a sociologist and I have spent the last 15 years working with patients, families and health professionals to better understand and improve their experiences of health, illness and care. I take an approach that privileges the person’s subjective experience of illness, healing or care, rather than focusing exclusively on disease outcomes.

We use these understandings to improve health and community services, and over the years I have focused on improving care for the dying, enhancing opportunities for survivorship in cancer and, most recently, contributing to the response to antimicrobial resistance through innovative strategies to counteract misuse of antibiotics.

As a sociologist one of my core concerns is to identify and challenge social inequalities and reveal the constantly shifting implications they have for health. My job, as I see it, is to explore how varied and often opaque social forces are fundamental to producing and solving emerging and enduring health problems.

I lead a team of sociologists, and we have active research projects in Australia, India and the United Kingdom, largely funded by the Australian Research Council. I joined the School of Social and Political Sciences because it is an incredibly vibrant and cutting-edge environment for the social sciences.

Can you tell us about your research and how you developed an interest in this area?

One of my key interests is antimicrobial resistance (AMR) – the diminishing effectiveness of our available antimicrobials in treating infections.

This global crisis is a sociological problem masquerading as a medical issue. AMR looks like a drug-shortage issue, or a matter of better control over medicines. But in fact, AMR is a deeply social, political and economic issue, embedded in our ways of life (for example, quick fixes, death denial, immediate gratification), and our systems of government (for example, institutional short-termism and the flows of political cycles).

Given this, one program I lead focuses on untangling the complex social and political forces that produce AMR across place and context. This has involved working with people in settings as diverse as hospitals in metropolitan Sydney right through to those purchasing black-market antimicrobials in the urban slums of India.

Further, our work has focused on how to mobilise elements of ‘the social’ to encourage Australian health professionals, institutions and communities to act together in ways that can protect our collective antimicrobial futures.

One of the creative outcomes from this sociological work on AMR has been a cartoon series we developed called the Broom Toons. In a humorous way, these work through the various social practices that result in misuse of our diminishing antibiotic options. We have found humour a useful way of promoting change by disarming individuals and groups and facilitating discussion of why they continue to do what they do, despite evidence of a lack of effectiveness.

One of Professor Broom's throught-provoking cartoons about antimicrobial resistance.


This work on these social levers of resistance (and potential solutions therein) heavily influenced the World Health Organization’s 2019 Policy Brief on AMR, and continues to influence strategies in many Australian health services to improve practices.

What is one of your most inspiring research moments?

Spending six months as a sociologist-in-residence in a NSW hospice, exploring what constituted a "good enough" death with people who were in the last few weeks and often days of life.

It was a privilege and a life-changing experience, but also an acute illustration of how our experiences are fundamentally shaped by a complex combination of our own desires and beliefs and those of our families and our institutions.

After this experience I wrote Dying: A Social Perspective on the End of Life, which works through how people manage the tensions between what they want, what others want, and what our institutions allow them to do at the end of life.

What do you hope to achieve with your research?

I aim to understand and transform, by working in a truly interdisciplinary way with a broad range of people, such as patients, families, health professionals, health service providers and communities. Sometimes transformation can be slow, partial and even unclear in terms of the full impact of what we do. As such, I value strategies that encompass short-term and long-term change, and environments which value both blue skies and more interventional, applied scholarship.

What do you see as the two greatest health challenges of the 21st century? Why?

The pursuit of profit and widening social inequality. These intermingling problems will result in major reductions in life expectancy over the next few decades. For an issue such as antimicrobial resistance, for example, the pursuit of short-term fixes is a fundamental barrier to our collective futures. One of the key reasons big pharma won’t invest in the antimicrobial pipeline is that profits are not as high as they are for other drugs. This is merely one example of why profit matters; but it speaks to how the push for immediate return on investment is driving health priorities, rather than the longer-term and climacteric problem of proliferating AMR.

Professor Alex Broom is an investigator on more than $16 million in competitive research grants, including 14 Australian Research Council (ARC) grants. He is Co-Director (and CIB) on the ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub to Combat Antimicrobial Resistance (2020-25), fostering innovate collaborations between researchers, universities and end-users to address the rise of AMR in Australia and beyond.

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