Aboriginal health services have been around since the 1970s, and the sky hasn’t fallen yet

17 Apr 2018

Over the past few months, some mainstream media outlets have attempted to stir up a hornet’s nest about health services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; Karen Wyld explains.

Interactive Map of Aboriginal and Islander Medical/Health Services

Interactive Map of Aboriginal and Islander Medical/Health Services via Australian Indigenous Health Info Net

Over the past few months, some mainstream media outlets have attempted to stir up a hornet’s nest about health services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Much gnashing of teeth has occurred on radio, television and print media. Only to be met with deep sighs, followed by attempts to educate.

Another inaccurate and emotionally-charged reporting of Indigenous health occurred this week. Whilst scrolling through my twitter feed, Daily Mail caught my attention with this highly emotive heading:

Josh Hanrahan, Daily Mail 16 April 2018

Like discerning consumers of media often do, I kept on scrolling. I didn’t want to give any clicks to what appeared to be yet another racist article by an uninformed journalist. But, despite my better judgement, I did end up reading it.

What is behind this recent misguided fascination with Indigenous health? Why are conservative megaphones getting so flustered about services and policies that have been in place for years?

Aboriginal community-controlled health services were ‘rolled out’ in the 70s and, contrary to Daily Mail’s prediction, the sky did not fall in.

There is both a lack of research and rationale in these emotive articles. When asked what they thought about Australia sliding towards “…its own version of South Africa’s ‘apartheid’…”, even the conservative men that Daily Mail journalist Josh Hanrahan interviewed were having none of it.

Warren Mundine, businessman, political commentator and Bundjalung man said: “I think apartheid is a bit of hyperbole…” And Simon Breheny, director of policy for Institute for Public Affairs, thought that calling Australia an ‘apartheid country’ is absurd.

There are quite a few absurd assertions within this article, starting with unfounded fears about Indigenous health services, waiting spaces in public hospitals, and cultural safety.

With a handful of conservative commentators waving red flags at these initiatives, Josh is not the only one jumping to conclusions. However, a quick online search to discover what health sector organisations are planning/already doing would reduce this pointless uproar.

For example, NSW have recommended cultural spaces within their public hospitals to improve treatment outcomes for Indigenous people presenting to emergency. There is evidence to show these simple measures are effective, and it’s not entirely a new initiative.

All hospitals have designated spaces to cater for the specific needs of consumers and their carers/families. For example, there are privacy rooms for people who have a loved one in a critical condition, and designated spaces for children and their parents.

Waiting rooms for Indigenous people presenting to emergency can better cater for larger families, and patients needing specialist staff such as translators or Aboriginal Allied Health Workers/Practitioners.

Cultural safety is another area being misconstrued by conservative commentators. It has already been successfully implemented within many government and community health services. And is already on the curriculum in Australian university schools of medicine and nursing.

Despite recent unfounded concerns of Nurses Professional Associations of Queensland, cultural safety has been a positive addition to the Australian health sector.

Janine Mohamed, CEO of Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives, is one of the leaders in health that introduced cultural safety into Australian health sector.

In a recent article for Indigenous X, Janine stated that it would be good to see cultural safety spread to other sectors:

Cultural safety is talked about and implemented in other fields, including education, and family and community services, although people in these fields are still learning about it so it is not always standard practice yet. In fact, CATSINaM recommended cultural safety training for journalists in our submission to the recent Senate Inquiry into the future of public interest journalism, and the latest media fracas indicates just how sorely this is needed.

Cultural safety training for journalist could help to reduce racism in Australian media, and ensure journalists are better equipped to write outside of their worldviews and experiences.

Another error in the Daily Mail is the assertion that “Aboriginal-only” services are being “rolled out.” The birth of Aboriginal health services was in fact decades ago in Redfern, NSW. There are now over 160 government and community-run Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health services, as well as support services.

State/territory health departments, Aboriginal Medical Services and Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services provide a range of medical and allied health services and programs that are specific to the needs of local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In rural and remote regions of Australia, where medical and health care would likely not exist without Aboriginal health organisations, these services are essential and have saved many lives.

The article infers these evidence-based services are a form of ‘segregation’, but I cannot fathom why any Australian would have an issue with equitable provision of essential health services.

Josh seems unaware that Australia already had an ‘apartheid’ type moment. Pre-1970s, there were government policies that segregated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, removed their children for the purpose of assimilation, banned them from accessing public services and facilities, and controlled many aspects of their lives.

The current gaps in disparity is the legacy of those darker days in history. Targeted policies, service and programs are the current governments’ attempt to close the gaps.

Instead of undertaking even minimal research, commentators and journalists who have no lived-experience of Aboriginal health appear to be irresponsibly creating controversy where none exists.

Cultural safety, specialised services and professionals, and delivery of services in remote regions are essential to building better patient pathways for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

For many years, the government has produced National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plans to provide strategic directions. Across Australia, many medical and health associations have committed to ensuring safety and quality and improving healthcare for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Emotive articles and segments on the radio or television don’t measure up to the expertise of these health organisations and their highly experienced workforce. These instigators of disharmony want people to be worried, but I don’t envision the sky falling anytime soon.

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