Closing the health gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Closing the health gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was first published in Partyline on 21 March 2022. Access the full magazine here.

Since 2008, the Commonwealth-funded Remote Area Health Corps (RAHC) has been supporting urban-based health professionals wanting to work in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the Northern Territory (NT). 

In that time, more than 1,700 registered nurses, general practitioners, dentists, dental therapists, dental assistants, audiologists and allied health professionals have taken up over 7,000 placements throughout the Territory.

RAHC’s main priority for 2022 is to assist in reducing health disadvantage among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, addressing the Close the Gap strategy.

More than a recruitment agency, RAHC provides cultural orientation and ongoing clinical support to healthcare professionals going out on placement. ‘Developing rapport with a community provides an experience that encourages health professionals to stay with us long-term,’ says Clinical Manager Emma Thomas.

Acting National Manager Tess McGuigan adds, ‘We help improve the health and wellbeing of those living in rural, regional and remote areas of the NT with regular professional development, both online and through personal consultations with a clinical coordinator and cultural development adviser. It builds knowledge and confidence so our team can deliver high-quality healthcare tailored to the unique needs of that community.’

Those working for RAHC have diverse backgrounds. Yet what links them is their passion.

At 76 years of age and after some 30 placements, Dr Richard Davey from Victoria has hung up his stethoscope and packed away his reflex hammer. 

His career with RAHC demonstrates the unique rewards and challenges of working with the world’s oldest continuous living culture. 

The first thing that struck him was the remoteness of NT communities and the high morbidity. ‘The remote area nurses (RANs), who are there all the time, work miracles, while the general practitioners drive or fly in for a day or two at a time, once a week or fortnight.

‘I arrived in one community as a nurse was dispatching a lady in the medivac plane. The patient had stopped her blood-thinning medication, even though she had an artificial heart valve. She survived and returned after hospital treatment, courtesy of that nurse who’d stayed with her half the night keeping up her oxygen levels.

‘Much of what one sees, diagnoses and treats retreated into the textbooks of urban physicians some 80 years ago,’ says Dr Davey, referring to conditions such as acute rheumatic fever, crusted scabies and massive impetigo. ‘There is also much ischaemic heart disease, diabetes mellitus and renal failure.’ 

It’s a sad situation. ‘In 2015 to 2017, life expectancy in the NT for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was 66.6 years for men and 69.9 years for women compared with 78.1 and 82.7 years for non-Indigenous Territorians,’ he says. 

Dr Davey’s work for RAHC was wonderfully fulfilling, allowing him to contribute to the effort in closing the gap in health care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – and the beautiful locations were a bonus.

‘The country is a little patch of heaven, glorious to drive through or fly over at five to eight thousand feet.

‘I’ve done the 500-kilometre drive from Alice Springs to Tennant Creek and back more than 20 times but was never bored. I’d be looking out for the next natural wonder, such as the massive granite blocks known as the Devil’s Marbles.’ 

Dr Davey praises the entire team at RAHC. ‘They are utterly professional and committed to the health professional. Their logistics management, ongoing support and attention to detail are superior to anything I’ve seen in the field.’ 

In retirement, he looks back with gratitude on his time with RAHC, leaving one’s southern suburban home to work in the NT for several placements a year. 

For more information about short-term paid placements with RAHC, visit www.rahc.com.au or call 1300 697 242.

Thursday, 17 March 2022