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Rejecting low expectations

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust
Published online: 16 June 2014

Dr Tammy Kimpton is president of the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association and a general practitioner in central New South Wales. Closing the gap is more than a policy statement to her; it’s a way of life.

Early in 2012 then Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered her third annual Closing the Gap report and said Australians should “never accept the soft bigotry of low expectations”.1

It was a quote which stuck with Dr Tammy Kimpton, president of the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association (AIDA).

“We’ve done really well getting Indigenous kids into medical school”, Dr Kimpton tells the MJA. “About 2% to 5% of first-year medical students are Indigenous.

“The desire is definitely there. High school Indigenous kids now see medicine as a very real option for them.

“What we haven’t yet seen is that 2% to 5% reflected in the graduating class”, she says. “We need retention measures. Various models have been used but we need to create support and a culturally safe environment. Throwing money at it doesn’t fix it if the environment is racist.”

There is, Dr Kimpton reminds us, a long way to go in gaining equity in the health system, not the least in medical education. It’s a topic about which she cares deeply.

“AIDA started when I was in my first year in medical school”, she says. “I benefited from that throughout my training. “The more involved I’ve become and the more I hear people’s stories, very similar to mine in terms of the way they feel, the way they’re treated — that’s what keeps me involved.

“Deep down I know there’s a long way to go.”

Dr Kimpton is a proud Tasmanian Aboriginal woman, born and raised in the west coast fishing village of Strahan by her grandmother and her mother, both Indigenous.

“Mum and Nan were very big on heritage and they kept me connected to family and heritage”, Dr Kimpton says.

Boarding school in Hobart was followed by a stint at the University of Melbourne studying engineering.

“Medicine had always been in my mind, but I was talked out of it by a careers counsellor”, she says.

“It didn’t take long to figure out that I would make a very, very bad engineer. It just didn’t feel like what I ought to be doing.”

She quickly opted for the “fabulous” medical program at the University of Newcastle, with its reputation for strong support for Indigenous students — “they had the runs on the board”.

After graduating in 2003 she worked on the central coast of New South Wales before moving to Scone in 2010, where she runs her general practice and lives with her husband and three children.

General practice was the ideal career path for her, Dr Kimpton says.

“I loved every term I did at medical school. I did some paediatrics, thought it was awesome. Did gynaecology, thought that would be great. I genuinely loved everything about medicine.

“Then I realised that as a GP I could pretty much do what I like. My passion for everything makes me ideal for general practice, I think.”

Not that she planned it that way.

“It’s hard to identify a career path … you just end up on one”, she says.

“I was watching my Nan’s health deteriorate and she was getting suboptimal care for a range of reasons. And I was watching the doctors and thinking, ‘I’m sure I can do a better job than that’.”

The mental health of medical students has been in the spotlight since beyondblue’s 2013 report found that, along with law students, they were the most likely in the tertiary education population to have mental health issues.

For Indigenous medical students the pressure to perform is heightened, and AIDA has developed a strong working relationship with medical deans around the country in a joint effort to provide support.

“A big need was identified”, Dr Kimpton says. “As an Indigenous medical student, you’re not only supposed to educate yourself, but you are also expected to perform at a higher level than your classmates.

“You constantly have to prove yourself.”

1. Australian Doctor 2012; “Progress made on Indigenous health” http://www.australiandoctor.com.au/news/latest-news/progress-made-on-indigenous-health.

  • Cate Swannell


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