How doctors can help ‘Heal Country’

3 minute read

NAIDOC Week is a chance for non-Indigenous practitioners to broaden their understanding of cultural health.

While the public conversation around social determinants of health has been steadily growing, little attention has been given to cultural determinants of health.

Yorta Yorta woman and public health researcher Dr Summer Finlay wants to change that.

Heal Country! is the theme for NAIDOC Week 2021, an annual event held Australia-wide which celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“[This year’s theme] is a really key message, particularly when we’re thinking about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health,” Dr Finlay told The Medical Republic.

“It’s not just physical health, it’s also looking at spiritual, cultural, and community health.”

Dr Finlay’s words echoed those of National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation Chair Donnella Mills.

“The health of Country, and the health of First Nations people, is firmly bound together,” Ms Mills said.

“Country is family, kin, law, lore, ceremony, traditions, and language.”

Dr Finlay, who is Vice President of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Public Health Association of Australia as well as a public health researcher at the University of Wollongong, said the Indigenous concept of Country was a key component of cultural practices.

“Many health practitioners, while we talk about the social determinants of health, often don’t think about the way culture impacts the way that we understand health, the way that health manifests within different communities,” she said.

“Understanding the key component of Indigenous culture, which is Country, actually will help people understand how to engage better with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

In practical terms, according to Dr Finlay, because culture underpins the way communities view, engage with and understand the world, health communications targeting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to be culturally informed in order to work.

To see this in action, Dr Finlay said, health practitioners don’t have to look any further than Australia’s 143 Aboriginal Controlled Community Health Organisations.

So far, the Indigenous community has largely escaped covid outbreaks – there have been no deaths from the disease, and a very small number of cases in total.

“One of the reasons [for that small number] is, in my opinion, because the ACCHO sector is so strong, they understand what motivates our community, they understand how our communities operate and they put out health promotion messages around covid to keep people safe, and actually explained to them how to get tested and to watch out for the symptoms [in a culturally resonant way],” Dr Finlay said.

For non-Indigenous health practitioners, Dr Finlay said NAIDOC Week offered a chance to reflect and question their role as advocates for Indigenous communities.

“I’d really ask everyone to think about what they can do this NAIDOC Week to actively engage in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and advocate with their colleagues around what they can do,” she told TMR.

“If we’re all doing a little bit, that equals a very large bit.”

Dr Finlay took over the Victorian Department of Health’s Twitter feed today, providing insight, posting resources and answering questions.

NAIDOC Week celebrations run until Sunday 11 July.

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