GP Peter O’Mara appointed Professor of Newcastle University

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

21/09/2020 3:50:00 PM

Professor O’Mara’s career went from coal mines to pursuing medicine and advocacy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth.

Professor Peter O’Mara
‘I was very humbled to find out actually what it means to the community … to my patients and to the Aboriginal medical services I work at,’ Professor O’Mara said of his appointment.

When asked about his new appointment, Professor Peter O’Mara is humble.
But when he thinks of what it signifies for his community, that is where the achievement truly lies for him.
‘It doesn’t really change what I do from day to day,’ he told newsGP.
‘But I was very humbled to find out actually what it means to the community, and to my patients and to the Aboriginal medical services that I work at. It actually means a big deal in that sense.’
A Wiradjuri man, Professor O’Mara always had a strong interest in science and how the body works. But growing up in the small township of Paxton, New South Wales, pursuing medicine felt out of reach.
‘In my early years I believed in the stereotypical view that studying and practicing medicine was for other people – doctors’ children and wealthy families,’ he said.
After leaving Cessnock High School, Professor O’Mara worked as a fitter machinist in the local coal mines. But a back injury led him to rethink his options.
He decided to enrol in a matriculation course that gained him entry into university, where he took up psychology with sights set on becoming a clinical psychologist.  
It was while studying for an exam that he saw an interview with Dr Louis Peachey, one of Australia’s first Aboriginal doctors, on The Ray Martin Show. That moment would turn out to be ‘life changing’.
‘I just wouldn’t have considered a career in medicine if it wasn’t for that. It sparked something in me and I thought to myself – why can’t that be me?’ Professor O’Mara said.
‘After my exams the next week, I went to the Faculty of Medicine and got all the information and pamphlets, looked over them many times and called multiple people to make sure I had everything right. Then I went down for an interview, and we did a week-long program at that stage to prepare us for getting into medicine.
‘From that point on there was no looking back; it has been an incredible journey.’
As a GP, Professor O’Mara has worked in Aboriginal community controlled health services.
He has also played a leading role in inspiring the next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers as an Associate Professor at the University of Newcastle for the past 14 years, where he is director of the Thurru Indigenous Health Unit that runs the Miroma Bunbilla Program.
An alternative pathway for aspiring doctors, the program is based on evidence that traditional admission pathways are not an accurate predictor of success for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
Since its introduction more than seven years ago, Professor O’Mara says results have improved dramatically.
‘It really made a big difference. We were going from fairly high failure rates at the end of first semester, maybe in the order of 50% because people weren’t necessarily equipped, to one student failing one subject,’ he said.
Professor O’Mara says increasing the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors in the field has a flow-on effect for the community.
‘First of all, there’s the role modelling that naturally occurs. As a young kid if you go to see your doctor and your doctor’s Aboriginal, that changes your view of the world and your expectations of yourself,’ he said.
‘But also, there’s a natural connection and synergy between Aboriginal patients and Aboriginal doctors. That’s certainly not to say that non-Indigenous folks shouldn’t be working in this space; there are non-Indigenous doctors who do amazing work and we really appreciate them.’
By striving for more culturally safe and appropriate healthcare delivery, Professor O’Mara strongly believes there are benefits for multicultural Australia at large.
‘I’ve been saying now for about 15 years [based on] empirical evidence of mine that I’ve seen over many years now, when we train any doctor to do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health well, they just become a better doctor for anyone,’ he said.
‘It really does make a difference. We’ve seen some of our doctors dropped into various other cultures who do amazing work in that setting because they have an approach, they have a system that works on reciprocity and respect, which are foundations of our culture.’
Over the years, Professor O’Mara has also been a strong advocate for issues of significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including the national Raise the Age campaign established to lobby all governments to increase the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Australia to 14.
‘It’s something that I am really passionate about,’ he said.
‘Let this sink in – right now children as young as 10 years old can be arrested, thrown in a police cell and then incarcerated in prison-like settings. It’s just unacceptable and as Chair of RACGP Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health I am not going to take a backwards step in getting the age raised to 14.’
The incarceration of children disproportionately affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people, who made up more than 60% of the 600 children aged 10–13 in detention from 2018–19.
‘Lifelong health and wellbeing begins in childhood and the sustained criminalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children will create a cycle of vulnerability and engagement with the justice system for generations to come,’ Professor O’Mara said.
‘This has to change and we have not got a moment to lose.’
But raising the age is a step in the right direction, not the solution, he says.
‘What we need are cultural solutions for our people to help steer our young ones in the right direction, to help with parenting again like it used to be, and providing that community to grow and to raise our children,’ he said.
‘It’s a real sense of empowerment, and there’s good evidence to suggest the stronger we make our kids in culture, they’re less likely to suicide, they’re less likely to self-harm, they’re less likely to be incarcerated, they’re more likely to get a good job, and with getting a good job there’s a whole heap of health benefits there.’
Professor O’Mara says GPs have a key role to play in advocating for their patients and, in turn, make moves toward closing the gap.
‘I’m so proud to be a GP, at all levels. There’s no one better placed to make those kind of changes because we have a relationship with our patients that no other doctor has,’ he said.
‘Our advice and guidance, in that sense, does go a long way and really impacts positively on our patients.
‘That’s why I think we’re the best people to advocate for health changes across the country, full stop.’
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Prof Siaw-Teng Liaw   22/09/2020 2:54:43 PM

Congratulations and keep up the great work

Dr Elizabeth Dorothy Hindmarsh   22/09/2020 3:51:23 PM

Peter - congratulations on this appointment. Great work

Dr Simon Holliday   22/09/2020 10:15:28 PM

This decade as a profession, we have had to face gender inequalities in our profession, including sexual abuse, of doctors. Now, in healthcare as in the community, we need to acknowledge our racial history and own it. Developing a pathway that allows indigenous Australians to contribute to the kind of service and leadership involved in healthcare is part of that process. A Healthy profession supporting a healthy nation, hopefully, will ensure that we never again see such outrages as 10 year olds being jailed or 46,000 years of heritage being destroyed as just occurred in the Pilbara region's Juukan Gorge caves.

Dr Simon Mark Holliday   23/09/2020 9:40:13 PM

P.S. Congratulations Peter!