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Teaching Indigenous health

Sophie McNamara
Med J Aust
Published online: 2 July 2012

There are plenty of opportunities to get involved as an educator in Indigenous health.

Since 2007, Australian Medical Council accreditation standards for medical schools have included an explicit focus on Indigenous health.

The standards specify that medical schools use the educational expertise of Indigenous people, and have effective partnerships with Indigenous organisations and communities.

Importantly, medical schools are also required to have an Indigenous health curriculum that includes study of the history, culture and health of Indigenous Australians. The AMC has endorsed the nationally consistent Indigenous health curriculum that was published by Medical Deans Australia and New Zealand in 2004.

Dr David Paul, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Aboriginal Medical and Dental Health at the University of Western Australia (UWA), says this increased recent focus on Indigenous health within Australian medical schools means that there are substantial opportunities for doctors, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, to get involved in Indigenous health education.

“It’s quite a new field, internationally as well as locally … lots of educators are needed to teach the curriculum”, he says.

Dr Paul says the Indigenous component of the UWA curriculum aims to ensure that medical students are well prepared to see Indigenous patients.

“We’re trying to give students an understanding of the context – the culture, the history of colonisation, the contemporary circumstances and how all of that impacts on the health of the community”, he says.

The curriculum also focuses on the specific clinical needs of Aboriginal people, and strategies to meet these needs. For instance, students consider whether screening programs should start at a younger age for Indigenous patients, or if medication should commence earlier.

Dr Paul says his greatest professional satisfaction comes from seeing students “start to get it” over the course of their 6-year undergraduate medical program.

“It’s fantastic watching them shift their level of understanding and engagement”, he says.

He also draws satisfaction from the fact that a number of UWA graduates now work in Aboriginal medical services or in Indigenous medical education roles, (see Registrar Q+A, page C2).

Dr Paul, who recently won a leadership award from the Leaders in Indigenous Medical Education (LIME) network, began teaching medical students when he was a GP in an urban Aboriginal Medical Service in WA in the early 1980s. From there, he worked in Indigenous health policy and research before taking the position at UWA.

Dr Louis Peachey, one of Australia’s first Indigenous medical graduates who has been strongly involved in education throughout his career, advises junior doctors with an interest in medical education to “just get involved”.

While this may initially mean informal teaching of medical students or junior doctors, he says this experience is invaluable and will be noticed by more senior clinicians.

“If people put their hand up for teaching roles, their reputation will precede them”, he says

Dr Peachey suggests that junior doctors contact professors with an Indigenous education focus, and says he believes most would be receptive.

“For anybody who is interested, that door is wide open to them”, he says.

There are also a number of formal qualifications that can assist doctors who are keen to get involved in Indigenous medical education (see below).

Dr Peachey adds that teaching is a fundamental part of being a medical practitioner.

“It’s a joyous responsibility that we have. It’s a wonderful thing. But it’s what you do if you want to be a doctor.”

While Indigenous health curriculums are not exclusively taught by Aboriginal people, Dr Peachey says one of the important things about having Indigenous teachers is that it changes perceptions.

“I think the interesting thing that happens when you have Indigenous doctors who are involved in teaching is that you instantly attach the clinical credibility and seniority to the teacher”, he says.

He adds that teaching Indigenous health is often about helping students appreciate the similarities between white and black Australians.

“It’s always assumed that Aboriginal people are special and different, and while I do think we’re special, yes, I don’t think we’re that different”.

Training as an educator in Indigenous health

Several universities and other organisations offer courses and training that are relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. The Australian Indigenous Health InfoNet (www.healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au) includes a comprehensive list of courses, not all of which are specifically aimed at doctors. Options range from a Masters of Public Health with an Indigenous focus, to medication management training for Aboriginal health workers.

Many of Australia’s medical schools also now have Indigenous health units, many of which also offer specific units or courses in Indigenous health. Registrars can also commonly access placements in Aboriginal Medical Services through their specialty college.

State-based Rural Workforce Agencies also offer courses and activities.

  • Sophie McNamara


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