RACGP makes positive Indigenous health advocacy trip

Jolyon Attwooll

24/06/2021 4:52:24 PM

For Professor Peter O’Mara, the reason for his advocacy journeys to Canberra can be summed up in one word: connection.

A meeting in Canberra.
From left: Leanne Bird, Dr Karen Price, Minister Ken Wyatt, Professor Peter O’Mara, and Jay Moran.

The Wiradjuri man and Chair of RACGP Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health was in the capital city this week for a visit that included meetings with politicians, Indigenous health organisations and civil servants.
‘A whole lot of the stuff we do in Aboriginal health, so much is about connection,’ Professor O’Mara told newsGP.
‘Connection to people, connection to country, connection to organisations, connection to what we do in terms of health across the country.
‘That’s why I have put it in to come to Canberra at least twice a year – so we are working together [and] reducing silos, so we are all heading down the same path.’
RACGP President Dr Karen Price, medical advisor for RACGP Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Dr Tim Senior, faculty manager Leanne Bird, and RACGP Government Engagement and Stakeholder Advisor Jay Moran were also part of the busy itinerary.
It included meetings with the Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt, as well as the Shadow Assistant Minister for Reconciliation and Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians, Senator Patrick Dodson.
Professor O’Mara’s personal link to Minister Wyatt, Australia’s first Indigenous cabinet minister, goes back to when he was a GP in a rural town where Minister Wyatt was working as a civil servant for the NSW health services.
Their meeting this time included conversations on primary care, training and issues related to data management.
‘I got a sense from Ken Wyatt that he really appreciates what general practice contributes to the health of the nation,’ Professor O’Mara said. ‘He tipped us off to a few things we might want to pay attention to.’
Minister Wyatt, in the meantime, told newsGP that he commends the RACGP’s commitment to working in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
‘This approach supports the priority reforms of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, which include fostering partnerships and sharing decision making, building the Indigenous community-controlled service sector and transforming mainstream services,’ he said.
‘It is only with such reforms that we can achieve the National Agreement’s targets for better socio-economic outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.’
The time in Canberra also afforded an opportunity for a first meeting with Senator Patrick Dodson.
‘It’s obvious we had some commonalities there, some things we could both work towards,’ Professor O’Mara said.
It is an assessment endorsed by Dr Senior who participated in the discussions on the Uluru Statement from the Heart – endorsed by the RACGP  – as well as primary care funding, mental health and the campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility.

From left: Jay Moran, Dr Karen Price, Senator Pat Dodson, Dr Tim Senior and Professor Peter O’Mara.
Dr Senior spoke of a warm, productive encounter in which he was pleased to reiterate his support for establishing a ‘Voice to Parliament’ as described in the Uluru Statement.
‘This isn’t just an academic, constitutional law issue that’s quite abstract,’ he told newsGP.
‘For us GPs, particularly working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients, there are actually really practical outcomes from doing that sort of thing.
‘For example, we have been involved in a submission around suicide prevention recently on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.
‘Looking through the policy in that area and preventing the high rates of Indigenous suicide – which is so important, the figures are appalling – and seeing that there are multiple policy areas that have an impact on that.
‘That’s just the sort of thing that an Indigenous Voice to Parliament would be talking to the whole of parliament about. There are really practical health outcomes that help treat our patients.’
Senator Dodson also told newsGP it was ‘a pleasure’ to meet with representatives from the RACGP.
‘I was heartened by the RACGP’s support for essential reforms in the First Nations space, including implementation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility,’ he said.
‘The RACGP and the broader medical profession can play an important role in advocating for change.’
Connections were reinforced in further meetings that took place during the visit. Delegates discussed the importance of multidisciplinary care with Indigenous Allied Health Australia, in addition to evaluation work being carried out by the Productivity Commission, led by CEO Romlie Mokak, a Djugun man and member of the Yawuru people.
Mr Mokak was formerly the CEO of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association (AIDA), as well as the Lowitja Institute, the national institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research.
The delegation also covered the topic of cultural awareness training with AIDA, while workforce issues were a theme of discussions with the National Association of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers and Practitioners (NAATSIHWP).
Another meeting, described by attendees as ‘positive’, followed with the Department of Health’s Indigenous Health Division. It featured discussions about the transition of general practice training and the role of cultural educators and mentors. 
Dr Senior, who was able to attend for half of the two-day trip before returning to his clinic, says his patients are at the heart of the advocacy work he contributed to.
‘I get to see [patients] for 15–30 minutes at a time and work on their health issues, and then they go out of my consulting room and live in the environments created by these policies,’ he said.
‘So if we are not working to try and influence effective health policy, we end up working with one hand behind our back. For me political advocacy stems directly from trying to provide high-quality healthcare for people.
‘It is a link we can often forget.’
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