New ways to encourage more indigenous students into medicine are ensuring more take advantage of the many options available, Lauren Ahwan reports.
INDIGENOUS medical graduates are urged to carefully consider where they want their career to take them or risk being ‘‘tossed to and fro’’ around the health system. Such is the demand for indigenous doctors that graduates can be persuaded to work in jobs not suited to their passion, leading to burn-out and discontent, one doctor believes.
Australian Indigenous Doctors Association (AIDA) director Kali Hayward says the opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors graduating are ‘‘mind-boggling’’.
‘‘You have so many choices that there is a risk you can overextend yourself,’’ she says.
‘‘I’m working three to four jobs at the moment and I’m getting offers all the time – it’s offers (to) work with the Aboriginal community or for Aboriginal people so there’s that pull (to accept the job).
‘‘You really have to watch yourself and try and find that balance.
‘‘You can be choosy. But the thing is you have got to know yourself, what you want to do. You have got to have a goal. Otherwise you can be tossed to and fro.’’
This year Flinders University accepted Australia’s largest-ever intake of indigenous medical students.
Fourteen students enrolled in its new Northern Territory Medical Program (NTMP), compared with a total of nine indigenous students who graduated in medicine from all of Australia’s universities in 2009.
AIDA reports 153 indigenous medical students were enrolled in universities across the nation last year.
The NTMP has 10 students based in the Northern Territory and four in South Australia and is hailed as a critical part of the Close the Gap initiative.
It allows students who already have at least a bachelor’s degree, not necessarily in health, to study medicine at postgraduate level for four years.
The most recent data suggests indigenous medical practitioners comprise 0.2 per cent of Australia’s medical practitioners, despite about 2.5 per cent of the nation’s population’s being of indigenous background.
Dr Hayward – who works in private practice and as a GP registrar at Adelaide’s largest Aboriginal community-controlled health organisation, Nunkuwarrin Yunti – says indigenous doctors are often put under more job stress than nonindigenous practitioners.
‘‘The biggest misconception is that you’re Aboriginal and you’re a doctor so you know everything there is about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health,’’ she says.
‘‘As Aboriginal doctors, we’re thrust into leadership roles – we’re sitting on boards with other doctors who have been in their fields for 20 years and we’ve just graduated.’’
Professor Michael Kidd, executive dean of Flinders University’s Faculty of Health Sciences, says Australia has an overall doctor shortage but indigenous medical graduates have an added advantage when it comes to securing employment.
‘‘They have great insights into the health needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,’’ he says.
‘‘We hope what we are seeing (the increasing number of indigenous medical students) is part of a revolution in medical evolution.’’
Medical student Yaritji Green, 33, worked as a trainee librarian before enrolling in the NTMP.
She says her decision was prompted by performing CPR, learnt during a first-aid course, on her mother during a heart attack.
‘‘I just got the thought in my head that if I was able to do that with just a St John course, what could I do if I did the degree,’’ she says.
‘‘Apart from my mum, a few others in my family have had heart problems and there’s a strong history of diabetes, so I personally would like to do something that would help indigenous health in the areas of cardiology or endocrinology.’’
Fellow student Justin Gladman, 34, who already has a degree in community and public health, says as well as improving health services to indigenous communities, he hopes to become a role model to others considering similar career paths.
‘‘There’s an opportunity there to break down some of the barriers – to be a mentor or support to other students that might be toying with the idea of a health degree, whether it be medicine or not, and encourage them to follow that up,’’ he says.
Flinders University first-year medical student Yaritji Green and second-year medical student Justin Gladman. Flinders University has had a record number of 14 indigenous students enrol in medicine for study in 2011.