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10 Apr 2017


The Council of Rural Doctors has pushed strongly for greater Indigenous representation on councils and committees, and I was delighted to see the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association (AIDA) attend the last AMA Federal Council, with arrangements being put in place to give Indigenous doctors a permanent voting presence on the Council. Collaterally, the AMA has a strong wish for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors to become AMA members. The culture of Indigenous doctors will make the profession stronger. It is therefore in the interests of the profession to have more of this group join.

But it is not as simple as a motion or a wish. There are differences between non-Indigenous and Indigenous doctors. But rather than focusing on the differences, a wise elder has advised me to focus on the similarities.

The similarities are profound and predate the migration of Western culture to the Australian shores:

1.   Respect for elders. In Aboriginal and Torres Strait cultures, respect for elders is fundamental to good order. If a young warrior were to disagree with an elder, one would not pursue this in open defiance, but rather seek to gently and seamlessly change the mind of the elder whilst being sure to protect the dignity of the elder, so that the elder would not subsequently face accusations of back-flipping. Exactly the same can be seen in our medical profession, with Registrars and Junior Consultants going to great lengths to gently encourage the Senior Consultants to consider a new approach, whilst ensuring the preservation of the dignity of their senior colleague.

2. Both Indigenous Australians and doctors will circle the wagons around a fellow member of the group who is under attack from outside forces. This is not to say that poor practices should be encouraged, but we are all very aware how easy it is to make a small error of judgment that quickly precipitates very serious consequences. From my non-Indigenous point of view, this circling of wagons around a colleague needs to be cultivated. If a colleague were to tell us they are doing poorly, are we willing to let them do the collegial equivalent of letting them sleep in our spare bedroom or, if someone is already there, on a mattress on the floor? Do we have a buddy system? Can we see ourselves dipping into our pocket and paying for another's membership fees until they are strong again? If not, why not? They would do that for us later when they are strong. You see, because we come from the same pool of life. We need to prevent some of the tragic doctor suicides we have seen in the past year.

3. Both groups face an exaggerated level of psychological trauma and PTSD. In the case of Indigenous Australians, this is from the ongoing cycles of trans-generational trauma, and grief of constant funerals and untimely deaths. Among our colleagues, we see the sequelae of being immersed in other people's grief and suffering, and untimely demise. We can learn from each other how to best handle these stressors to care for our own mental health, relationship stress, and professional distress.

4. We also share the touchstone of our profession – the Hippocratic Oath. This Oath is familiar in the heart of our Aboriginal medical colleagues long before the first Indigenous doctor graduated.

 To hold my teacher in this art equal to my own parents; to make him partner in my livelihood; when he is in need of money to share mine with him; to consider his family as my own brothers, and to teach them this art, if they want to learn it, without fee or indenture; to impart precept, oral instruction, and all other instruction to my own sons, the sons of my teacher, and to indentured pupils who have taken the physician’s oath, but to nobody else.

This is a familiar description of the Uncle-Nephew Relationship and how Lore is passed from one generation to the next. Although much of the technology of modern medicine is very new and at the cutting edge of science, the Art of Medicine is an Ancient and Sacred Craft.

Surely it is in the greater interest of the profession that, should we wish to preserve this ancient craft, we would seek to recruit a people to whom such precepts are already familiar.

There are just over 250 Indigenous doctors in Australia. If their numbers roughly were in the same ratio as the rest of us, there ought to be 60-80 Indigenous AMA members. The onus is on us to bring into our family any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander member. We in the AMA are looking into these ratios and numbers. Can you look into your hearts and find a personal way to recruit our medical brothers and sisters?

Thank you to my mentor, Dr Louis G. Peachey.



Published: 10 Apr 2017