Our commitment to improving healthcare for our First Peoples community.

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A/Prof Brett Courtenay OAM

Some years ago, I wrote about my experiences at the Aboriginal Medical Services Redfern.  What I found, particularly (and it was mentioned in that earlier article) most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders did not have a comfort in much of the way that we conduct clinics in our hospitals, regarding the rigid pattern.  I used to joke that I would have six patients booked for a clinic and I would see six, but generally not the six that were booked.  Unfortunately, with the advent of Covid 19, and the restrictions that came into play, travel was stopped as was many of the face-to-face clinics.  Following on from that, I relinquished my clinical and operative roles, both at St Vincent’s Public and St Vincent’s Private Hospitals, due to reaching that age in my career.

In the lead-up to that, not only did I work at Aboriginal Medical Services Redfern, but I was also heavily involved with the Australian Army and the health of regional Forces in the top 50% of Australia.  There are three units, Norforce, Pilbara and 51 FNQ, that all have a 30% Aboriginal component.  My role was the senior health advisor to the second division, and de-facto was most of their medical support.  I had the opportunity to see and examine many of these members, and it’s fair to say that the health of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders was very different from ours.  I do not have an explanation for it, but the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were far more prone to Rheumatic fever, and many of our young women were on regular long term penicillin prophylaxis.   Something I did not even know existed was possible until I worked in those Communities.  Diabetes was also prevalent in all age groups and was most likely related to diet, or inherited factors.  It was not uncommon for otherwise very fit soldiers in their early thirties to have Type II Diabetes.

Another victim of Covid was that the public hospital was looking at rotating resident staff to a hospital called Bamega.  Bamega Hospital is the most northerly hospital in Australia, an area that services the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities of Cape York Peninsula.  It is a hospital where Diabetes is one of the most common conditions, and where treatment is extremely limited but the best that can be offered.  It is a pity, because I suspect there would be many Australian junior doctors who would not be aware of the extent to which it occurred.

I raise all of these issues as we still have an ongoing issue with attempting to close the gap between the health of the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders and the rest of our Country.  We are still about 10 years difference in life expectancy, and we really do need to get an understanding of that.

In Sydney we are in a very privileged area, but we are forever mindful of the fact that there are very diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities around Australia that are in need of our help.  The St Vincent's Clinic Research Foundation has been very active in supporting our staff, and also projects that will address the health issues of our homeless, of whom a significant number are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

For more information about the Aboriginal Medical Services Redfern, contact Redfern AMS on 9319 5823 or visit www.amsredfern.org.au

Associate Professor Brett Courtenay OAM is an Orthopaedic Surgeon, specialising in joint replacement, knee surgery, primary and revision hip surgery, and medicolegal consultation; and the President of St Vincent’s Clinic Research Foundation Advisory Board.