Call for more practising Indigenous doctors in Australia to help improve health of communities

6 December 2013 8:52 AM

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Call for more practising Indigenous doctors in Australia to help improve health of communities

Currently in Australia, there are fewer than 200 practising doctors from an Indigenous background.

Health experts have long called for more medical professionals with cultural understanding to help close the gap in life expectancy and medical outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

To address this, the University of New South Wales set up a scholarship seven years ago with private philanthropic organisation the Balnaves Foundation specifically aimed at supporting Indigenous medical students.

Andrew Julian, 24, is the first student to successfully graduate with the scholarship.

"Single child to a single parent, just loved science, loved the human body, played a lot of sport, had a few injuries and then spent a lot of time in a doctor's office," he said.

"[I] just grew a passion for it and was lucky enough to get accepted into UNSW medicine."

He says the Balnaves scholarship supported him through the six long years of study at UNSW.

"[It helped me] financially, obviously, [allowing me] to be able to dedicate the majority of my time to study and not have to worry about work," he said.

"They regularly keep tabs on me and ask me how I'm going. They're always there to offer a hand or offer an ear."

Established by media figure Neil Balnaves, the scholarship is trying to help close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

"It's a very, very big issue that's been well canvassed in the press lately, that the Indigenous members of our community are way, way behind in the areas of medical assistance, and are certainly suffering a far higher rate of all sorts of diseases," Mr Balnaves said.

"The scholarship's just simply an attempt by just one person who's trying to bring a higher rate of Indigenous doctors through the university system."

Currently, the life expectancy of Indigenous Australians is 17 years less than that of their non-Indigenous counterparts.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies die at almost three times the rate of non-Indigenous babies.

Indigenous Australians are also twice as likely to end up in hospitals as they suffer significantly higher rates of heart disease, cancer, kidney failure and diabetes.

Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver is an Indigenous woman and director of the Muru Marri Indigenous health unit at University of New South Wales.

"In New Zealand, for example, they started graduating their first Maori doctors way back in the 1800s," she said.

Professor Pulver says having Aboriginal doctors "makes life a lot easier" for Aboriginal patients that require hospital care or other medical care.

"It's a little bit like if you walk into an environment and you're the only person of your background, or you're the only woman in an environment of hundreds and hundreds of men or if you're the only person who's of a different age category than everyone else, it makes you feel uncomfortable," she said.

"Having Aboriginal doctors allows Aboriginal people to recognise and know that there are people out there that are just like them but know the story, know the background and know what they need to do to get some care."

Mr Balnaves hopes Mr Julian is the first of many to graduate through this scholarship.

"Just now, just having graduated, the world's sort of my oyster a bit," he said.

"I've got plenty of time to think about you know, what field of what area of medicine to go into and just going to do my internship and work that stuff out a bit later.

However, Professor Pulver says his achievement of graduating today is already more than enough of a contribution to his community.

"Whether or not they return home to community, or whether or not they become the best surgeons, physician, psychiatrist, that they possibly can be, they are giving back to communities regardless of what they do and where they go," she said.

"That Andrew has stated clearly and articulately that he wants to go back home and work in community is a bonus. It's absolutely fabulous.

"He's a role model, he's a mentor, and he's someone that lots and lots of other kids will look at him and say hey, I grew up there, I'm just like him, I can do this too."


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