Closing the Gap: A Personal Perspective

The La Trobe Rural Health School reflects on Close the Gap Day today, and how the theme ‘Transforming Power: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led Transformation, Gender Equality, Equity, and Allyship’ relates to us.

Close the Gap Day is of great significance to the La Trobe Rural Health School (LRHS). ‘The single most powerful action that we can effect as a school is to graduate confident First Nations health clinicians who are practice-ready, to serve the Australian community,’ says Professor Jane Mills, Dean and Head of the LRHS.

‘Ensuring that our graduates can practice cultural safety with all people, is an important goal to improve engagement from First Nations communities.’

I caught up with our Aboriginal Rural Health Coordinator Mishel McMahon for an insight into her personal perspective.

Why is it important to attract more First Nations people into healthcare?

Building a health sector which is informed by First Nations processes and perspectives and implemented through a First Nations health workforce Is the only pathway to improve the health, healing and wellbeing of First Nations communities.

University Departments of Rural Health such as the La Trobe Rural Health School (LRHS) hold responsibility to create culturally safe education spaces, with curriculum which positions First Nations perspectives for health to enable this sector to grow. Attracting more First Nations people to health professions multiplies positive outcomes.

From my experience, in that moment of clinical human to human interaction, a First Nations patient will experience high levels of rapport with a First Nations health professional. This concept of rapport enables meaningful communication and higher levels of engagement with the service provider and the treatment plan, by the individual being treated, their family members and community.

In what ways are First Nations perspectives different to the dominant narratives, and why should their voices be amplified?

I am a Yorta Yorta woman and Victorian Aboriginal. Our Aboriginal culture holds continuing knowledge, concepts and processes for health, healing and wellbeing. This corpus of knowledges is thousands of years old; it is dynamic not static.

There is a large reservoir of First Nations ways of knowing and doing in relation to health that would benefit both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. Concepts such as holistic health, interdependence between people but also people and landscape, localised initiatives, the concept of balance within the human body and with our environment, cyclical time and relational growth, all hold significant learnings for improved health for everyone.

Our ways of knowing for health became ‘invisible’ through the doctrine of terra nullius (‘land belonging to no-one’) which is now overturned by the High Court. However, we remain in the shadows of terra nullius because we have not collectively asked the question, if this doctrine was wrong, then what is right? The answer to that question would result in the re-writing of Australian health education.

What does ‘cultural safety’ mean in practice, and why is it important?

The foremost attribute non-Aboriginal people need to hold, is to know themselves, understand the power imbalances which occur in our society, this is cultural safety. This process means that the current status quo of the invisible ‘white normative’, and the visible ‘exotic other’ begins to be dismantled.

Until non-Aboriginal health students or professionals go through the process of understanding their own identity, that they also hold culture and beliefs, developing a deeper awareness that all ‘identities’ are equal but different, First Nations perspectives will continue to be located at the periphery of Western European Australian culture.

Once the process of cultural safety has commenced then First Nations people can lead or participate in health initiatives from their own localised cultural standpoint, not as an add on but as equals.

For a First Nations person aspiring to work in a health-related field or thinking about pursing further study, what would you say are some of the most rewarding things about working in regional Australia, in the community and on Country?

Working for the LRHS across northern regional Victoria within the area of Aboriginal rural health is such an opportunity. There is so much to do – we are only just building the foundations.

Talking to First Nations students as they enrol and to hear their hopes for their future, for themselves, and for their families, fills me with optimism. These students can participate in community-based programs to raise awareness and integration of First Nations authored health literature for curriculum.

And the best thing about my position: I get to be on Country and meet communities.

What are your thoughts on the Closing the Gap theme for 2022: ‘Transforming Power: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led Transformation, Gender Equality and Equity, Allyship?’

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led Transformation is the cornerstone; the stone first laid, from which a structure is built, the stone which orients the direction we are taking.

During the last two years of the pandemic Aboriginal communities demonstrated how effective it is to empower and transfer autonomy to Aboriginal communities. As explained in the Closing the Gap Report (2021), Covid -19 cases were six times lower in First Nations communities than the rest of Australia, through strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership.

This process of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led Transformation needs to now be positioned for all health and healing initiatives. From this foundation we can transition to a place where we no longer discuss ‘closing the gap’ between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal health statistics, but instead attain the high levels of health our Ancestors experienced, from our localised First Nations health perspectives.

Read more about Mishel McMahon, in her own words, here.

The La Trobe Rural Health School offers courses across 12 different health disciplines. Discover them all here.

Media contact: Julia Henery, j.henery@latrobe.edu.au