Associate Professor Peter O’Mara is president of the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association. He is head of the Discipline of Indigenous Health at the University of Newcastle, and a director of the Wollotuka Institute, which consolidates all Indigenous activities at the university. He continues to practise clinically as a GP at an Aboriginal Medical Service in Forster, NSW.
“I left school in year 10, and got what was the best job available in the small town of Cessnock in the Hunter Valley, which was a job in the coalmines. I was a fitter machinist, and it was a well paid job and a secure industry. Although I had always been interested in how the body works, I thought medicine was for doctors’ children or rich people. I never thought someone like me could give it a shot.
I was quite happy working in the mines, but that all changed after I sustained a lower back injury in a serious motor vehicle accident. I returned to work after 6 weeks and tried to do the things I’d always done, but it was so difficult. I had been known as the strongest bloke in the mine and I did lots of kickboxing and cross-country running, so I expected to go back and do the heavy work again. It was really tough, but I knew I had to look for something else to do. I thought I’d have to study, use my brain.
I did a matriculation course, which got me into a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Newcastle. I studied psychology, sociology and biology, because I thought I’d like to become a clinical psychologist. Although I don’t like talking to big crowds, the thought of sitting down one to one with people and making a positive impact on their lives was attractive to me.
One day I was home studying, when I sat down for lunch in front of the television. Ray Martin was interviewing the first two Indigenous doctors to graduate from the University of Newcastle, Louis Peachey and Sandy Eades. I was taken aback — ‘what, they’re Aboriginal doctors?’. They just seemed like really normal people, and I thought ‘wow if these guys can do this, maybe I can too’. So the next week, I was straight down to the faculty, read all the information packs until I knew them word for word, then applied for medicine, got accepted and the rest is history.
I’m a GP in Forster and I also helped set up a bulk-billing clinic in Port Macquarie. I hear a lot of our medical colleagues complaining, but I feel honoured to be a doctor. People take you into the deepest parts of their lives, and you do get to make a positive impact in their lives. Compared to the university work I do, the verification is obvious. For instance, someone’s depressed and you initiate treatment and see the improvement. At university, the rewards are very long term.
The main role of the Discipline of Indigenous Health is to get Indigenous students in, make them good doctors, and get them out the other end. But it’s also about making non-Indigenous health professionals competent in dealing with Aboriginal people. And you really see the change. It’s fairly well known now that when you train doctors to work well with Aboriginal people, you make them better doctors overall, for everyone. They’re less judgemental; they’re more independent and have a greater understanding of people’s histories outside their own cultural systems.
To work well with Indigenous patients you can’t just be a great communicator, you also need a solid core of medical knowledge overall. There is also a skill set around clinical issues that particularly affect Indigenous people. It’s about scanning for proteinuria at higher rates, not accepting such high levels of blood pressure, and looking out for diabetes in everyone.
I will be AIDA president until October, when I will have spent about 4 years in the job. Some of the things we’ve achieved as a team at AIDA include creating a collaboration agreement with the Medical Deans to install an Indigenous health curriculum in every university across the country. I’ve also just signed an agreement with the Confederation of Postgraduate Medical Education Councils, who look after junior doctors’ training. I also chair an Indigenous sub-committee with the Committee of Presidents of Medical Colleges, where we are making inroads to ensure that all specialist colleges have training positions for Indigenous doctors, and, most importantly, that they train all doctors to competently deal with our people.
The bottom line in all these activities is improving the health of Indigenous people. We’ve made fairly significant progress into ensuring that all doctors who work in this country know the health issues facing Indigenous people and how to deal with those. There are not many jobs where people you’ll never know, and they’ll never know you, will have improvements in their lives because of things you’ve done. It’s incredibly rewarding.
Outside of medicine, I try to prioritise time with my family, but finding that balance is one of the battles as well. We’ve got a cattle farm, and I’m a lead singer and drummer in a rock ‘n’ roll blues band, plus I’m kickboxing and bodybuilding again now. When my presidency with AIDA finishes I’ll have more time for all those things.
Despite the work with AIDA and the university, the highlights of my career are my patients and their thanks and the relationships I have with them. I know there’s all that big stuff but for me it often comes back to just being a doctor and finding it rewarding everyday.”
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