In­fi­nite prom­ise

New ways to en­cour­age more in­dige­nous stu­dents into medicine are en­sur­ing more take ad­van­tage of the many op­tions avail­able, Lau­ren Ah­wan re­ports.

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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.

Pic­ture: Mark Brake

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.

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