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Concord surgeon awarded prized Harkness Fellowship

Associate Professor Sarah Aitken will research health workforce inclusion and diversity for the fellowship.

A woman stands and looks at camera smiling.
SydneyConnect image: Associate Professor Aitken 

Concord Institute of Academic Surgery chair Associate Professor Sarah Aitken has been named the 2024-25 Australian Harkness Fellow. 

The vascular surgeon will travel to the University of California San Francisco in September to begin her year-long project on planning for health workforce diversity. The project will look at how institutions in Australia and the US implement diversity and inclusion policies to ensure equity in their respective health systems. 

Associate Professor Aitken – who is also head of surgery at the University of Sydney and chair of the training board for vascular surgery at the College of Surgeons – said reflecting the communities they serve could help hospitals and educational institutions better serve those communities. 

“There's a lot of scope to be thinking about what does our community look like and how do we represent that in our workforce?” she said. 

“And what needs to change at the leadership level to make this happen? So that's kind of where my interest came. And it ultimately comes down to being able to provide the best care for our patients.” 

Being chosen to be Australia’s representative on the Harkness Fellowship program this year was an honour, Associate Professor Aitken said, particularly because it meant the issues at the heart of her project were seen as important and worth investing in. 

The Harkness Fellowships in Health Care Policy and Practice, administered by New York’s Commonwealth Fund, support year-long comparative research projects with mentoring from US experts. 

Associate Professor Aitken said she was eager to explore how to create culturally safe, responsive and nurturing programs that would value a diverse workforce. 

“That's where the research is headed - how do we bring that whole system change?” Associate Professor Aitken said. 

“How do we change the mentality from the top to the bottom, to address systemic racism, bias and inequity? And hopefully, I’ll learn some things to bring home.” 

Associate Professor Aitken said Sydney Local Health District had made great strides in building a diverse and inclusive workforce and could play a leading role in helping other organisations do the same. 

“I think that as a District we've done some amazing work in the space of LGBTI workforce and creating a workplace that's really open and inclusive,” she said. 

“But it's not enough just to be looking at our own backyard ... And I think there's real scope here for Sydney Local Health District to be part of leading those discussions.”