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12 May 2016

Indigenous life expectancy in some parts of Australia is 26 years below that of the national average, and there is an “element” of racism in how the health system treats Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, according to AMA President Professor Brian Owler.

Speaking at the launch of a document in which the AMA called for an end to the under-funding of Indigenous health services, Professor Owler said that although people who worked in the health system were not racist, the way the system itself treated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was often culturally inappropriate.

“Racism is a word that needs to be used cautiously, but there is no doubt that there is an element in terms of how we deal with Indigenous people,” the AMA President said. “Now, it’s not to say that the people in the system are racist, it is about the way that we recognise and provide culturally appropriate care.”

Professor Owler, who visited Alice Springs and several Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory earlier this year, said the Alice Springs Hospital was much more culturally sensitive in the way it dealt with Indigenous people compared with other hospitals and health centres, including those with a significant number of Indigenous people as patients.

“I think in that way…there is an element of racism, and those are the sorts of things that we need to deal with,” he said. “I don't think people should understand that the people in the system itself are racist, it’s the way that the system needs to change and develop to make sure that we look after Indigenous people in the way that is more appropriate, safer in terms of culture, and that is likely to engage them more and deliver much better outcomes.”

Nationally, the life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lags 10 years behind that of the rest of the community. But in parts the gap reaches 26 years, and Professor Owler said Indigenous children as young as seven years old were developing type 2 diabetes – probably the youngest of anyone in the world.

Indigenous health services have been hit by Government spending cuts and uncertainty over future funding, and the AMA, in its Key Health Issues for the 2016 Federal Election document, has called for an end of what it said was chronic under-funding of the sector and an investment boost in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled health organisations.

“Having toured central Australia and the Northern Territory, and spoken to people that work in this field, they have seen a cut in Indigenous health over the past few years,” Professor Owler said. “While we’ve made ground in Indigenous health, there is so much more to do. But when you go and talk to people, when you see the realities on the ground, the issues that are being faced by Indigenous people, particularly in remote and rural communities and regional Australia, you can see that there's so much more that needs to be done.”

The AMA’s Key Health Issues for the 2016 Federal Election document is available at

Adrian Rollins

Published: 12 May 2016