Champion of adolescent health A/Prof Melissa Kang receives PHAA NSW Public Health Impact Award

PHAA NSW President Dr Patrick Harris presented the 2019 NSW Public Health Impact Award to Associate Professor Melissa Kang at UTS on 8 July 2020.

Photograph: Catriona Bonfiglioli

A/Professor Kang said she was thrilled to receive the award as it recognised the significance of adolescent health policy, access and innovation.

“I’m thrilled because it shines a light on youth health,” A/Professor Kang told PHAA NSW.  “I’ve been working with young people for almost 30 years and getting traction around young people for their health and well-being has been a struggle,” A/Professor Kang from UTS’s Faculty of Health said.

A/Prof Kang said New South Wales have been taking adolescent health very seriously with improvements in policy, funding, workforce development and accessibility especially for marginalised young people. “There’s a more to be done but compared to other jurisdictions, they’ve been taking it very seriously,” she said.

A/Prof Kang, MBBS (Sydney), MCH (UNSW) and PhD (Sydney), is most widely known as a champion of frank health and sex advice to young people during her long service as the Dolly Doctor (1993-2016) for the teenage girls’ magazine Dolly.

A/Prof Kang is the co-author of Welcome to Your Period, with media personality Yumi Stynes which won the 2020 Book of the Year for Older Children 13+ from the Australian Book Industry Awards.

She has published clinical resources, 100 academic reports, books and book chapters and articles for The Conversation.

A/Prof Kang is one of three UTS staff involved in the Centre for Research Excellence in Adolescent Health led by Prof Katharine Steinbeck at the University of Sydney. A/Prof Kang is working with UTS Faculty of Health Professors Lin Perry and Fiona Brooks and post-doctoral research fellow Daniel Waller.

A/Professor Kang is a Senior Career Medical Officer in Youth Health, Western Sydney Local Health District as well as an Honorary associate in the Department of General Practice, University of Sydney at Westmead.

Further information

A/Professor Kang who graduated in Medicine in 1986, trained in General Practice and has dedicated her career to improving and advocating for young people’s health wellbeing. Her major projects investigated youth access to health care, sexuality, sexual health as well as contributing to policy development, workforce training, research and research capacity building, in NSW, nationally and internationally.

In April 2020, A/Prof Kang and the manager of the Youth Health Service in WSLHD were invited to work on ways to help vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 1999 NSW Health developed its Youth Health policy and funded the NSW Centre for the Advancement of Adolescent Health (CAAH) A/Prof Kang, then at the Adolescent Medical Unit at CHW, was seconded into CAAH as the Education & Training Coordinator until to 2004.

A/Prof Kang founded the Youth Health Forum (YHF) at CAAH which continues today through the Youth Health and Wellbeing Team at the NSW Ministry of Health reaching several hundred youth health and related professionals across 30 regional and rural sites. In 2003, Melissa secured funding from the Transcultural Mental Health Centre to develop the GP Resource Kit, a resource to help GPs engage with young people.

Melissa has been the Chief Investigator on the NSW Health funded studies Access Phase 1 and Access Phase 2 which informed the 2011 – 2016 NSW Health Youth Health policy.

Access 3 involved young people and informed the NSW Youth Health Framework 2017 – 2024. A key finding was the value of dedicated ‘youth health navigators’ to help vulnerable or marginalised young people accessing health.

A/Prof Kang’s work has seen the number of Youth Health Coordinators rise from three across 17 Area Health Services to 15 across each of the fifteen Local Health Districts today.  Other projects have contributed to reduced presentations to emergency departments and used online interventions to improve chlamydia screening.

Melissa has contributed to curriculum development and teaching in adolescent health at the University of Melbourne, 2001-2004, the University of Sydney (2006-2015) and UTS (2019- present). She has supervised to completion several Honours, Masters and one PhD student and currently supervises seven PhD students and one MD student. She has been a Chief Investigator on research grants totally over $3M and Associate Investigator on grants totaling $11M+.

She is currently President of the Board of Directors of the Australian Association for Adolescent Health Ltd (AAAH) and a member of the International Association for Adolescent Health, the Society for Adolescent Health & Medicine (USA), and the Public Health Association of Australia.,

A/Prof Kang is a vocationally registered General Practitioner, an Associate of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP).

She has worked clinically at Cellblock Youth Health Centre (1994-95), in the Adolescent Medical Unit at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead (CHW, 1996-2004), Nepean Sexual Health Clinic (2011-12), and headspace Camperdown (2014-15).

In 2019 she was awarded the Sax Institute Research Action Award in 2019 and the Australasian Sexual Health Alliance Mid-Career Interdisciplinary Achiever Award.

The politics of play

Play is healthy – throughout the life course. The evidence that engaged play has physical and mental health benefits is compelling.

However, the nature of play is changing. Younger generations increasingly depend on screens to play, and outdoor play tends to be constrained. ‘Roaming range’ (the territory you can and are allowed to roam freely in) has decreased over the last four generations, and Alan Davies poses a few hypotheses why that might be. Could it be, he asks, that children today:

  1. Are innately less adventurous?
  2. Live in suburbs where there are fewer interesting places to go?
  3. Have fewer playmates in the immediate neighbourhood?
  4. Have parents who are far more coddling than previous generations?
  5. Have more ways of spending their time at home?

These questions are valid but wrong. Roaming range, and the opportunity as well as the freedom to play, have reduced because our social and political systems have responded in overdrive to something called the Risk Society. Giddens postulated that a risk society is “a society increasingly preoccupied with the future (and also with safety), which generates the notion of risk,”[1] and German Ulrich Beck defines it as “a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernisation itself[2].

‘Roaming range’ (the territory you can and are allowed to roam freely in) has decreased over the last four generations.

roaning range

Source : Derbyshire, D. (2007, Jun 15). How children lost the right to roam in four generations. Daily Mail

Play and risk are inherent to human life and evolution. Limiting play and pretending that risk can be eliminated is the end of humanity as we know it. Yet – in an unstoppable juggernaut the whirlpool of media coverage, policy proposals, institutional performance accountability and individual as well as social perceptions there is the illusion that life can be risk-free – and limiting or regulating play behaviour is part of the ‘solution’.

The question, then, becomes how policies and politics that creatively manage risk and at the same time creatively and optimally stimulate play and human development can be assessed and supported. The argument is that media coverage is relentless, and social/cultural norms are phenomena virtually always unyielding to intervention. Policy is, supposedly, a sphere of influence that can be morphed. In particular policymaking at the lowest level of governance, close to the community that lives its benefits or laments its absence, is worthy of investigation and investment.

Therefore, the overarching question on the above five becomes:

What are the determinants of local (council) policymaking that would enable the maximization of roaming and play, at every stage of life, but in particular for children between 5 and 13?

We have argued[3] elsewhere that we have the theories and tools to study this question. It is time to be playful again[4].


[1] Giddens, A., & Pierson, C. (1998). Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making sense of modernity. Stanford University Press. P. 209

[2] Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. New Delhi: Sage. P.21

[3] De Leeuw, E., Clavier, C., & Breton, E. (2014) Health policy–why research it and how: health political science. Health research policy and systems, 12(1), 55

[4] de Leeuw, E. (2011) Theory and policy innovation for health: where has the creativity and fun gone? Health promotion international, 26(1), 1-3