Opinion | The Ripple Effect: Improving health outcomes for Indigenous Australians

PROFOUND IMPACT: "Staff, myself included, have been changed also by the experience of teaching in the medical program," Professor Gail Garvey says.
PROFOUND IMPACT: "Staff, myself included, have been changed also by the experience of teaching in the medical program," Professor Gail Garvey says.

This year, the University of Newcastle (UON) celebrates 40 years of its highly respected medicine program.

Since 1978 the University has graduated doctors with a dedication to excellence in all aspects of patient care with the skills and capacity to adapt and respond effectively to new and emerging future health needs.

From Foundation Dean, Professor David Maddison revolutionising medical school admission to the establishment of Australia’s only jointly delivered medical program, UON isn’t afraid to do things differently if it means the best possible outcome for Australian communities.

Integral to that unique approach to medical education is the University’s commitment to Indigenous medical education.

Medical schools play an important role in achieving better health for the community as a whole but particularly for those most vulnerable, such as Indigenous communities, through training a competent and culturally-aware medical workforce.

The University of Newcastle has, and continues to be, a trailblazer in graduating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors and this contribution has made a significant impact on the Indigenous health agenda.

As we rightly celebrate 40 years of medicine at the University of Newcastle, and in particular its focus on equity, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on that period, and its contribution to the improvement of the health of Australia’s First Nations Peoples, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Thirty-four years later, the Indigenous Medical Education entry program is recognised as one of the most successful and empowering models of Indigenous medical education, graduating more than a third of Australia’s Indigenous doctors – a wonderful achievement. 

The ethos and vision of the founders of the University of Newcastle Medical Program, in particular Vice-Chancellor James Auchmuty and the Founding Dean, Professor David Maddison, placed equity at the heart of this new program.

This ethos and vison were also embraced and consolidated in the early years by Professors John Hamilton and Robert Sanson-Fisher, and this has continued with subsequent Deans along with their staff, students and Indigenous communities, to ensure that one of Australia’s most virulent medical challenges, the health of Indigenous Australians, was appropriately addressed in this emerging progressive medical program.

Graduates from this program, Indigenous and non-Indigenous have gone on to do extraordinary things. These graduates and the current student cohort, have and will, continue to be great advocates for the program at Newcastle.  Their influence will continue to ripple out across time and place. 

But it is not only graduates who have created these ripples of change. Staff, myself included, have been changed by the experience of teaching in the medical program.

For the benefits to continue to ripple on from the University’s medicine program, it is vital that Aboriginal health remains an area of study that receives constant recognition, allocation of adequate time in the curriculum and sufficient teaching resources.

Medical schools have an important responsibility in developing a workforce that is responsive to the needs of Indigenous people.

Partnerships between Indigenous communities and medical schools can also facilitate reciprocal benefits in research and service activities, and address issues such as access and appropriate delivery of health services.

The University’s contribution to training the nation’s future doctors is an important investment in the health and well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities.

Moving forward it will be important to consider what role the University of Newcastle’s medicine program should have in a time when more of us are living longer, but health disparities continue to widen between Indigenous Australians and other Australians? And how do we nurture the deep power that lies at the heart of the Indigenous Medical Education Program to keep striving for health equity for Indigenous Australians?

Professor Gail Garvey is the Senior Principal Research Fellow at the Menzies School of Health Research. A Kamilaroi woman from NSW, and a graduate of the University of Newcastle, Professor Garvey delivered a keynote lecture this week as part of an Equity in Medicine public lecture series to celebrate the 40th anniversary of medicine at UON, and the 10th anniversary of the Joint Medical Program.