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Safeguard or mollycoddle? Medical student placements in Aboriginal communities

Adrian N Winsor
Med J Aust 2011; 195 (2): 102-104.
Published online: 18 July 2011

To the Editor: I spent my fifth-year medical student elective at Alice Springs Hospital and a remote Aboriginal settlement in the north-west of South Australia in the early 1980s. I organised this myself and came away with a fairly firm belief that the health of the Indigenous population in remote areas was unlikely to improve.

Between 1995 and 2009, I visited remote Aboriginal settlements and hospitals in Darwin and Alice Springs as a specialist physician. Nothing I have seen in that time has changed the view I formed as a student.

During my time in these settings, I have seen in the Indigenous population extreme examples of poverty, severe neglect of children and adults with disability, and examples of physical and sexual abuse. On occasions I have been threatened, and at times I have needed to be escorted for my safety. When staying overnight on settlements, I have been provided with secured accommodation. I have walked in fear of feral and diseased camp dogs and have been hurried along in my work to avoid cultural incidents.

The article by Patel and colleagues explores some of the issues in this area as they affect medical student training.1 I think it is good that they have done so, but to dress it up with quasi-scientific methodology is unnecessary.

My view is that it is not possible to provide or sustain health services of any reasonable standard in small and remote communities that have no economic basis for development and where the population is poor, poorly educated and has little prospect to share in this country’s fortune.

There is a reason that we are failing to improve the health of the Indigenous population in remote areas, and that is that we cannot. It is an unrealistic expectation. This needs to be acknowledged, and we all need to move on.

  • Adrian N Winsor

  • Adelaide, SA.


  • 1. Patel A, Underwood P, Nguyen HT, Vigants M. Safeguard or mollycoddle? An exploratory study describing potentially harmful incidents during medical student placements in Aboriginal communities in Central Australia. Med J Aust 2011; 194: 497-500. <MJA full text>

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