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27 Jun 2017

By AMA President Dr Michael Gannon

With Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing more than twice the burden of disease than their non-Indigenous peers, it is vital that Australia’s medical workforce is well equipped to meet the unique health and cultural needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients.

Central to this is increasing the cultural competency of our doctors and health professionals, and more importantly, supporting more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to become doctors.

It is well known that Indigenous doctors have a unique ability to align their clinical and socio-cultural skills to improve access to services, provide culturally appropriate care, and ultimately improve health outcomes for their Indigenous patients. And it is well documented that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to visit a doctor if they are Indigenous.

Yet in 2014 there were only 261 medical practitioners in Australia who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, a number well below population parity.

Growing the Indigenous medical workforce is a long-term process, and requires change at all stages of the medical education and training continuum. Over the past decade, there has been a steady increase in the number of Indigenous students graduating from medical programs, yet very few of these graduates continue on to specialist training pathways.

There is already an emerging disparity between the number of medical graduates and the number of specialist training opportunities available, and Indigenous graduates in particular face further barriers that keep them from successfully pursuing further training. Current evidence shows that increased financial hardship, a lack of appropriate role models, and insufficient information and promotion of specialist options are all acting to prevent Indigenous enrolment in Medical Colleges.    

It is clear that there must be an improvement in the recruitment and support for Indigenous graduates pursuing specialist medical qualifications.

The AMA recognises that there is already some great work being done in this area by many of the Medical Colleges, who are implementing Indigenous specific pathways and programs, as well as having a range of scholarships available for Indigenous graduates. These measures increase the opportunity for Indigenous graduates to access these valuable services.

But there is still more than can be done.

More information on how to access these programs and promoting the pre-requisites for entry will make the application process clearer, and help to smooth the pathway for participation in specialist training. Establishing more scholarship opportunities, like the AMA Indigenous Medical Scholarship,  across all areas for Indigenous trainees could help remove the financial barriers faced by Indigenous students and assist them to achieve their career aims.

And growing the number of Indigenous Trainees and Fellows can have a positive flow-on effect, increasing the critical mass of Indigenous doctors that is essential for long-term change within the medical workforce, and encouraging more graduates to follow in their footsteps.

Specialist training providers must find more ways to support Indigenous medical graduates to help achieve a diverse workforce that can adequately respond to the needs of Indigenous patients and communities. This will be crucial in helping to close the gap in health and life expectancy outcomes for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  

Published: 27 Jun 2017