Anna Couch is an experienced Melbourne-based Podiatrist with special interest in diabetes, wound management and sports medicine who volunteered with SOS Health. She shares some of what she learned through this remote community exposure experience:
I was privileged to volunteer in North East Arnhem Land with the SOS Health Foundation.
The Foundation facilitates allied health professional teams who want to volunteer their time, skills and expertise to disadvantaged remote indigenous communities. Their vision is to close the gap in health outcomes for people in remote indigenous communities – by increasing the availability of, and access to, allied health services.
My experience involved spending one week working as a podiatrist with the Laynhapuy Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service; providing healthcare to some of the remote homeland communities spread across 6,500 square kilometres of East Arnhem Land.
During my week, I learned more about the services provided to Aboriginal people in the homelands. This helped me to think deeper about the current collaboration in Australia between the health services and Aboriginal people.
Local Aboriginal Health Workers are essential
In each of the homelands to which I travelled, an Aboriginal Health Worker was fundamental to the care provided by the team. These workers partner with nurses, doctors, dentists and other healthcare professionals to provide interpretation services, as well as first aid between health visits. These partnerships are essential. They allow health services to collaborate with Aboriginal people to ensure that healthcare is sustainable and culturally appropriate to their needs.
Open communication and correspondence play a vital role in delivering healthcare across disadvantaged communities
During my time as a volunteer, I was extremely impressed with the ability of the Laynhapuy health service to escalate a patient’s treatment when required.
At two communities I visited, some patients required urgent medical attention. The team would make a call, and within half an hour, a plane would arrive to fly the patient to either the main hospital in Nhulunbuy or Darwin – dependent on the level of care they needed.
These experiences reinforced the exceptional open communication that is facilitated by healthcare workers. They do this constantly between the community and acute hospital health care providers. I believe healthcare in Australia needs to be equal for every single person, regardless of where they live. This is why SOS Health exists – to help close the gap.
I was blown away by the relationship between the healthcare professionals at Laynhapuy Health Services and their patients in the Homelands. Interactions were authentic and free of assumption and judgement. This was so refreshing to witness, and it serves as a reminder to al health professionals when working with vulnerable populations.
Better workforce planning would attract more healthcare professionals to remote communities
There are simply not enough healthcare professionals working in remote areas to service the podiatric and other allied healthcare needs of the communities.
Research shows that indigenous Australians are more likely to experience diabetes-related foot complications when compared to non-indigenous Australians, yet these remote locations are where we have the fewest podiatrists working.
For the disparity in health outcomes to be reduced, we need to focus on attracting healthcare professionals to remote locations. This is where the work of SOS Health Foundation is so important. Allied health professionals can volunteer for a week or more and get exposure and experience of what its like to serve a remote community. It’s both challenging and rewarding, and I think by gaining this exposure more people would want to spend some time providing professional allied health services to Aboriginal people who can’t easily access what we do.
Workforce planning needs to be a key focus for government bodies when looking towards the future.
I can thoroughly recommend volunteering with SOS Health Foundation. I learned lots and feel like I’m a better practitioner for the experience and awareness. Who knows I might head back as a volunteer or even decide to work in a remote community in the future. Regardless, I’m convinced that we need to do more to help close the gap in Indigenous health, and what SOS Health offers allied health professionals is helping us be part of that.
To learn more about SOS Health Foundation visit soshealth.org.au
This article originally appeared in the Australian Podiatry Association’s monthly member magazine, STRIDE for Podiatry. www.podiatry.org.au