Hands up for better Indigenous health at #armsctg16

Rebecca Irwin, Chair of the National Rural Health Student Network, reflects on last weekend’s Close the Gap conference run by the ARMS Rural Health Club at ANU…

I think it was Dr Samia Goudie from ANU who said it best: “I’m looking at a sea of people who are interested, motivated and wanting to make a difference.”

She was addressing more than 120 future doctors, nurses and allied health professionals from around Australia who had come to Canberra to learn more about closing the gap.

These students, members of university Rural Health Clubs, were challenged to become part of the solution.

Close the Gap conference ARMS RHC ANU“Who will you BE and what will you DO as you respond to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals, families or communities with whom you work?”

That question was posed by Donna Murray, CEO of Indigenous Allied Health Australia, during the cultural responsiveness workshop on the second day of the conference.

Donna encouraged us to reflect on what culture means, our own core values and assumptions, and to acknowledge that we are all leaders capable of creating change.

Clearly, one of the changes that needs to happen is a better approach to Indigenous health curricula at universities, where it ranges from excellent to non-existent. This was a point emphasised by Janine Mohamed, CEO of the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives.

Our student network strongly agrees. We should be fostering more culturally responsive and effective health practitioners by providing a quality Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health curriculum for all health students.

That means understanding the historical, social and lived context of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – how it impacts on health and how it can differ from one region to another.

Luke Pearson, founder of Indigenous X, was one of many who stressed the importance of treating Indigenous patients as individuals and not just another checklist defined by racial stereotypes.

In fact, all speakers highlighted the need to tackle racism, not just in a personal setting but addressing institutional racism within workplaces and universities.

The other issue that kept coming up throughout the weekend was workforce.

In order to close the gap in Indigenous health, we need to create more opportunities for Indigenous students to pursue health careers.

It’s great that there are already more than 200 Indigenous doctors and more than 1,700 Indigenous nurses in the health workforce, providing positive role models for the next generation.

Not only does it help and inspire Indigenous students, but it also benefits non-Indigenous students and health trainees to see the world from another perspective.

We still have a long way to go though, if you take population parity as a measure of success. With Indigenous Australians constituting 3% of the population, an additional 2,000-plus Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors would be needed to reflect that proportion of the medical workforce.

This is a critical factor in closing the gap in health outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

As Dr Jackie Huggins, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, reminded us: “In a rich country, why is it like this?”

Finally, I would like to acknowledge some special people:

  • Larry Brandy, the Aboriginal storyteller who stepped us through some traditional yarns and hunting techniques
  • Justin Mohamed, CEO of Reconciliation Australia, who told us: “There comes a time in the history of nations when their people must fully reconcile with their past”
  • Dr Peter Tait, environmentalist and Indigenous health advocate, who spoke of Australia’s cultural DNA: “We all relate to country, it is part of us and we are part of it”
  • Friends and fellow students who put their studies on hold to organise this conference for their peers (in particular Meg Davis, Rewena Mahesh and Danielle Dries) … they are the future, and it is to them whom I dedicate this article.

FOOTNOTE: If you would like to find out more about some of the issues raised at the ARMS Close the Gap Conference, you may be interested in attending a seminar on cultural safety in policy and practice being held in Canberra on Wednesday 27 April. This is being run by the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives in partnership with the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health.

  • The NRHSN represents medical, nursing and allied health students who belong to 28 university Rural Health Clubs. It is funded by the Australian Government and managed by Rural Health Workforce Australia.
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