In 2014, figures from the Department of Health showed only 261 of the 85, 510 medical practitioners employed in Australia identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. By 2019 the number had increased, but what’s worrying is it’s no commensurate to the overall population growth.
A recent study based on CENSUS data shows a 13 percent decline of Indigenous health workers relative to the population. According to ABC, the sector requires approximately 2300 more Indigenous doctors to reach parity with its non-Indigenous counterparts.
Thankfully, some great role models are entering the industry like Vinka Barunga, proud Worrora woman, who graduated from the University of Western Australia in Perth. Vinka is the first Aboriginal doctor in her hometown of Derby, WA, a community of over 4000. A community that, before Vinka started working in, had never had a full-time Aboriginal doctor residing––not from lack of necessity, however.
A recent article by SBS cited common ailments in the Derby community include diabetes, kidney and heart disease in adults, while our children are regularly affected by ear and skin infections. They also pointed out many of the communities are suffering from conditions caused, and/or complicated, by substance abuse and poverty.
The good thing about having doctors like Vinka seeing to these areas is, not only are many of the patients her family and friends, making it a gentler connection between doctor and patient, but it is believed, culturally, Indigenous health professionals are a better fit for Aboriginal communities. In fact, there’s growing evidence the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait health workers in remote communities, help facilitate culturally appropriate care.
Karl Briscoe, CEO of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Worker Association (NATSIHWA) says the role of a health care worker in these areas is unique.
“We know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers are extremely important for improving the health outcomes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities,” Mr. Briscoe told Australian Medicine online.
He admits, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers are critical to delivering culturally appropriate care. They can reduce communication gaps, improve follow-up practices, help with medical advice and provide cultural education.”
This making it an urgency that more young Indigenous Australians are encouraged to enter the field of medicine.
In the case of Vinka Barunga, she knew from when she was a young child, she would be a doctor, telling SBS, “I was always that kid who wanted to put bandaids on and take someone’s temperature when they’re sick.” Raised in the Aboriginal community of Mowanjum, 10 km away from Derby, Vinka remembers running ‘round town half-dressed and swimming (with typical childhood fearlessness) in crocodile-infested waters. Vinka told online publication, Mamamia, that she feels lucky to have had such a free childhood, but that while the children and elders were free and fearless, they were also struck with a terrible sickness that drove her to her calling. “Growing up I saw sickness,” she told Mamamia “but didn’t fully understand what that meant for my community and my culture”. “It was also in high school that I began to understand how the history of Australia’s treatment of Indigenous people has impacted health and suffering today.”
Vinka is not alone, there are hundreds of young Indigenous doctors coming up the ranks whose dream is to give back to their community through their education and skills. The problem, from what we have learned, is that figure should be in the thousands before we can feel as though we are doing the community justice.