Injury profiles of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in New South Wales

Kathleen F Clapham, Mark R Stevenson and Sing Kai Lo
Med J Aust 2006; 184 (5): 217-220. || doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2006.tb00205.x
Published online: 6 March 2006

In Australia, injury is a leading cause of death, illness and disability, representing about 6% of all deaths and accounting for about 7% of hospital separations.1 In recognition of this burden, federal, state and territory governments have identified injury prevention as a health priority.2 The prevention of injury in, and promotion of safety to, Indigenous Australians is acknowledged as requiring particular attention.3 Hospitalisation rates for injury are one of the performance indicators for the National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health.4 It is difficult to make an accurate assessment of the extent to which Indigenous Australians experience injury, particularly in south-eastern Australia, where Indigenous status is substantially under-reported in hospital morbidity data.5-7 To date, there are few published studies describing the magnitude of injury among Indigenous Australians, and no study provides a comprehensive understanding of the impact of injury on their lives. Available evidence suggests that the overall burden of injury for Indigenous Australians is 2.8 times greater than for non-Indigenous people.8

There are about 119 865 Indigenous people in New South Wales, comprising 27% of the total Indigenous population of Australia.9 To date, the most reliable information on Indigenous injury in NSW comes from a small number of local area surveillance studies.10-12 These describe the context of injury and the effects of injury on individuals, communities and particular population subgroups. However, they do not describe the magnitude of difference in the rates of injury between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations. Here, we report the incidence of injury to Indigenous people compared with the non-Indigenous population in NSW over 4-year observational periods between 1999 and 2003.


We used three data sources for our research:

HOIST is an electronic repository of health-related data collections which includes datasets on deaths and hospitalisations throughout NSW.6 We did not use hospital emergency department data, as recent studies found regional and hospital variation in emergency information systems, and Indigenous status in emergency injury records in NSW less completely recorded than in hospital admissions data.10-12

We obtained data for all injury-related deaths and hospitalisations in NSW in 1999–2002 using International classification of disease (ICD-10) codes for injury (taken from Chapters 19 and 20).13 We calculated injury mortality and hospitalisation rates for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians for the same years using population data derived from the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001 census of population and housing, in which NSW Indigenous profiles are available.9 Age-specific, sex-specific and injury-specific mortality and hospitalisation rates were calculated. We calculated standardised mortality and morbidity rates by means of the direct standardisation approach using the NSW 2001 population as the standard.

In this article, we use the terms “Indigenous” and “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander” interchangeably. Ethical approval for the research was obtained from the University of Sydney Human Research Ethics Committee.


The high rate of injury in the Indigenous population compared with the non-Indigenous population in NSW is consistent with data recorded for the rest of Australia.8,14-16 Our findings show that an Indigenous person in NSW has a much greater risk of dying or being hospitalised as a result of injury than a non-Indigenous person. Of particular concern are the high rates of death among children aged 0–14 years and adults aged 25–44 years, and the significantly higher risks of death or hospitalisation for Indigenous people as a result of interpersonal violence and poisoning.

Injury problems in Indigenous communities are complex. They are interrelated with other health issues, and with socioeconomic and environmental conditions.8,14,15 There is growing awareness of the problem of violence in Indigenous communities, particularly widespread family violence.17-19 Factors underlying violence and self-harm have been identified as the effects of colonisation, loss of land, language and culture; the erosion of cultural and spiritual identity; racism and discrimination which undermine self-esteem and sense of personal wellbeing; the disintegration of family and community obligations that have traditionally sustained relationships and maintained social order and control; unresolved grief associated with multiple transgenerational trauma; loss of parenting and relationship skills; and lack of access to primary health care.14,20 Alcohol and substance misuse have also been identified as common contributing factors to injury.15,21,22

Children aged 0–14 years are known to be particularly vulnerable to injury,2,21 but very little is known about the nature and extent of injury to Indigenous children. Injury issues which confront children in Indigenous communities are more complex than those commonly experienced within the general population, and are related to Indigenous social disadvantage, poverty and general ill health. Indigenous children may be put at risk through living in an overcrowded home environment, economic deprivation, high stress levels and recurring domestic violence.11-14 There is a lack of information about the extent of these problems across different geographical regions and about the relationship between substance misuse and child injury. Further, there is no age or sex breakdown of data, and too few studies within Indigenous communities in urban areas.23

Despite recent efforts to improve Indigenous identification in hospital data in NSW,24 there are known limitations in Indigenous health data in this state. This is because of both substantial under-reporting of Indigenous status in data collections in NSW hospitals6 and reluctance by Indigenous people to report injuries.10-12 Serious injuries may be treated in emergency departments, or not treated at all. Fear of investigation or involvement with government departments, such as the Department of Community Services has also been cited as a reason for childhood injuries not being treated.11

Our findings are particularly relevant to primary care health practitioners and policy makers. Given the now growing body of literature highlighting the experience of violence in Indigenous communities in other parts of Australia, the findings in this report are very likely to be conservative. In considering the data, it is important to take into account the complex historical and social factors underlying Indigenous injury, as well as the much broader concept of what injury means to Indigenous people, encompassing not only the external causes but also the psychological and spiritual aspects.

Most injury is preventable, but Indigenous communities appear not to have benefited from pubic injury prevention strategies to the same extent as non-Indigenous people.21 There is a lack of interventions targeting injury prevention among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.14,15,21,25 Many Indigenous communities in NSW are working towards solutions for better health, safety and wellbeing, and promising examples of innovative and creative projects to address injury issues have been identified,25 However, the success of local initiatives is often impeded by lack of information to set priorities, inadequate skills within organisations and insecure funding. Indigenous injury prevention is a relatively new area of research, and there are few projects for preventing injury in urban areas where most Indigenous people live, and few that target young people, despite the Indigenous population being a “young” population. A new research study, Safe Koori Kids, aimed at building community interventions to improve the safety of urban Indigenous children and youth in NSW, will commence in 2006.26

One of the principal failures of successive governments to improve Indigenous health is the failure to acknowledge the underlying social and economic causes of ill health and social disadvantage. There is an urgent need for government to recognise, support and strengthen the work already being done at the community level to address local priorities and to work together to develop more effective interventions. This can best be achieved by being prepared to work in a cross-sectoral context with a broad range of community and non-government partners, and by strengthening partnerships with Indigenous organisations, by assisting them to build capacity to tackle injury and safety issues in a culturally acceptable way.

Received 16 August 2005, accepted 16 January 2006

  • Kathleen F Clapham1
  • Mark R Stevenson2
  • Sing Kai Lo3

  • 1 Injury Prevention and Trauma Care Division, The George Institute for International Health, The University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW.
  • 2 Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences, Deakin University, Melbourne, VIC.


Competing interests:

None identified.

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