The wrong way to talk to students about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health

Christopher Foerster




All medical students in Australia are likely well aware of the health issues faced by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that must be urgently addressed. There are no easy solutions and this is an area where students in all health professions should be aware of the issue so that they can engage in the dialogue as potential solutions are discussed.

I was recently reminded of how important it is to approach this issue carefully, especially when discussing it with health professional students. At a national paramedic student conference, I was impressed to see that the program included speakers representing a group seeking to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. Given the importance of this issue and my interest in this area, I was eager to hear what would be said about what these students will be able to do to contribute to improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health.

As the talk got underway, I became disappointed at the message from the speakers. What was being said also disheartened many of the paramedic students who I spoke with after the conference. Sadly, this is not the first time that I have heard a speaker convey a message like this to a largely non-Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander audience. It seems to be taboo to raise an issue like this as I am about to do, but it is important to do so in the interest of possibly preventing hundreds more students becoming disheartened and disinterested.

So what was said that caused me so much concern? It wasn’t one single statement, but rather a recurring theme of the implication that only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders can provide effective care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I do not disagree with the suggestion that culturally appropriate care is most easily provided by someone from within the cultural group. However, the idea that non-Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people are by their very nature incapable of providing this appropriate care is incorrect. All too often though this is the message that seems to be conveyed during these talks. This serves only to push students away from an interest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health by implying that non-Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people will never be able to meet the medical needs of these groups.

The message when speaking to groups predominantly composed of non-Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander health students should focus on how all Australian health professionals will someday be able to contribute to improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. This is the type of positive message that can help to nurture an interest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health regardless of the student’s background.