Racist health?

Sometimes some things I read in a newspaper challenge my capacity to believe, and the report in this newspaper on Friday about racism within Hunter New England Health was one of them.

In that report our health reporter, Jacqui Jones, told us that the health service was fighting racism in both the structure of the organisation and among its staff, that it was seeking to create a zero tolerance of racism, that many Aboriginal people were discouraged from using its facilities because of racism.

It wasn’t Jacqui’s reporting I found challenging, it was the assertions that some staff, and it is presented as a significant number of staff, at the region’s hospitals and other facilities behave in a racist way.

And it seems unbelievable that in the year 2012 Hunter New England Health is requiring a zero tolerance of racism! It’s been a very long time coming.

The account of racism is in a report by the health service’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander strategic leadership committee published in the latest edition of the NSW Public Health Bulletin and it identifies two types of racism within the health service.

One is institutional racism, which it says is a failure of the organisation to meet the needs of Aboriginal people because of their race. Failing to meet the needs of any group of people is not good, especially if the organisation is capable of meeting those needs. It is unforgivable, and unimaginable to me, that Hunter New England Health would put less effort into meeting the needs of people of a certain race because of race.

But institutional racism or not, as much as possible should be done to meet the health needs of all people of all races within the Hunter and New England regions. If Hunter New England Health has not been doing that it should tell us why.

The other form is individual racism, which the report describes as words, conduct or practices that advantage or disadvantage people because of colour, culture or ethnicity. Note the reference to both advantage and disadvantage.

The report says that racist attitudes, words and practices of the health service’s staff ‘‘can have a profound effect on Aboriginal clients’’, and, I expect, on clients of other races and backgrounds.

So are we to believe that some Hunter New England Health staff behave in a racist way to, specifically, Aboriginal people? How?

Do staff call them racist names? Address them discourteously? Make jokes at their expense? Do they set them tasks they know cannot be done, as in filling out a complex form? Do they ignore them? Do they have a lower tolerance of bad language or abuse or intoxication than they do with other people?

Whatever the form of the individual racism, bringing it to an end in 2012 must be a wonderful thing, but why wasn’t this behaviour stamped out years ago? Racism in even mild or jocular form has been unacceptable for many decades.

I have already admitted my scepticism. I don’t doubt that there are racists among the staff of Hunter New England Health, and among the staff of every organisation, but I cannot bring myself to believe that a staff member would, say, address an Aboriginal person derogatively, that other staff would tolerate this, that such racial insult would not result in a one-chance warning or dismissal.

And it seems to me that the staff of Hunter New England Health have been insulted and maligned. No wonder, as the report states, that some staff have been angry that they’ve been forced to attend the Cultural Respect Education Program, that they have ‘‘struggled to accept or conform to the principles of the training’’ under the Cultural Redesign Initiative.

Most staff, the report says, emerge from the program with ‘‘a more culturally respectful approach’’. Do they mean culturally fawning? Were the staff not culturally respectful before they were culturally redesigned?

I smell indoctrination, with more than a hint of racism.

Have you encountered racism as a staff member or patient of Hunter New England Health? Has the staff been maligned?

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