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Death by racism: bigotry in the health system is harming Indigenous patients

“I’ve seen Indigenous patients treated with suspicion and denied pain relief. We need cultural awareness programs on all levels of the system”, writes Colleen Lavelle, a strong Wakka Wakka woman, mother of four, with an inoperable brain tumour.

Death by racism should be a category on death certificates, because the racism in hospitals is hindering the recovery of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Spend some time as a patient in a hospital and you soon find out that the medical profession is full of bigots and people who might not consider themselves racist, but have preconceived ideas on race and hold outdated beliefs in racial stereotypes.

I have been in and out of hospital for years with a brain tumour and have experienced the bigotry within the system first hand. I have also collected stories from Indigenous people around the country and a common thread is either: “Is it me or do they treat all of us like this?” or “Am I being overly sensitive?”

Indigenous cancer patients have even had pain relief denied to them. This might happen for a couple of reasons. First, because apparently some people think we Indigenous people can cope with more pain than our European counterparts. Let me state now that that ethnocentric view is not true. Another common view is that we are “faking it” to get drugs. Now, I don’t know about you, but if someone has cancer and is crying in pain, it’s pretty obvious they are not trying to get some cheap thrills.

A similar misconception is that we are drunk. I have even heard of cancer patients having their blood alcohol level tested before a doctor will see them. This assumption that we all take drugs or drink is outdated and just insulting.

Traditional people from remote communities have had to deal with their cultural mores being completely overlooked. Men have been shamed by having a young female nurse attend to them, when a male nurse is required. The same happens to our women too: a male attendant will try to do something that should only be done with or by a female. And when women ask to have another female in with them, they are quite often overlooked. I can’t understand why our cultural needs are overlooked when other peoples have their cultural rules respected.

The medical system seems so against us in so many ways, particularly if we are sent to a hospital away from home and English is not our first language. Good luck trying to find a translator to help! Governments, both at state and federal level can’t say they are doing all they can when our needs are not even considered important. All we hear are excuses like, “The cost is prohibitive for translators, patient transport, mobile medical units …”

We are the first people of this country and as such we shouldn’t be constantly overlooked. Perhaps fewer trips to the Gold Coast and a little bit more money into Indigenous health could help.

There are ways to make the road to good health better. For starters, no doctor or nurse should be allowed to work with Aboriginal people unless they have had cultural awareness training. It should be a requirement that all medical professionals do a cultural awareness course, with a refresher course after every year. Make it part of the accreditation process. It should be a part of the Close The Gap scheme that every general practice has to sign on to do cultural awareness. Even if it’s just one person in the practice doing it online. There could also be an incentive, such as the practice receives money for each Indigenous patient they see.

If every doctor and nurse across the country had this training and if hospitals and health executives spent quality time with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients, they might learn we are not so different. We might have some different needs, but they shouldn’t compromise the levels of compassion, caring and proper medial attention that we need.

If you would like to support Colleen’s fight please visit

This story was first published on 6 February 2017 by Guardian Australia as part of their collaboration with IndigenousX. Produced with assistance of IndigenousX & Guardian Australia staff.


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