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A physiotherapist discovers that closing the gap may be as simple as starting with communication tools

Communication key to closing the gap

Emma Breheny
29 June 2016


‘At university, we were taught statistic after statistic about how Aboriginal people were disproportionately affected by health issues in Australia. But I really didn’t know anything else about the issue,’ Hannah Carroll, APAM, reflects.

In her first physiotherapy role at Alfred Health, she applied for a rotation to Alice Springs Hospital, a partnership established between the two hospitals with the motive of Closing the Gap by sharing resources and clinical knowledge. The interest she’d developed in Aboriginal health was nurtured and expanded into a fully-fledged commitment to raise the bar in her profession around culturally appropriate care.

Get to know your local Aboriginal health professionals, get informed through cultural awareness training, support community events, and learn to listen.

‘There’s a really keen interest among physiotherapists around cultural safety and awareness, but they want to know how this works on a practical level,’ Hannah says.

Recognising her fortunate experience of living in Alice Springs— initially for four months on rotation, followed by a year-and-a-half stint as a permanent staff member—Hannah is now focusing on sharing what she learned from community members, patients and colleagues about providing healthcare in a way that delivers respect and recognition for culture.

The biggest lessons were around personal interactions and communication. She describes her horror at realising from her Pitjantjatjara teacher that she had been expecting people to do something incredibly rude when she was asking them to walk across a group of people in a standard patient–therapist walk to the end of a busy hallway.

‘Looking back, the number of people I would have put through that situation was mind boggling. It was one of those moments where you cringe and wish you’d known long before.’

She also learned to take a broader view of health literacy that acknowledged each patient’s priorities and their story, something she says required a more flexible approach to delivering care than what is often taught. Now she wants to return the favour in a sense, sharing the lessons from her own mistakes.

In her current position in an acute environment in Canberra, she has begun conversations about using the organisational action plan for respect and reconciliation to develop a specific plan for the physiotherapy team. She meets regularly with Aboriginal liaison officers and is also a member of the APA’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Committee.

‘Whatever setting you work in, there are some simple strategies that you can explore: get to know your local Aboriginal health professionals, get informed through cultural awareness training, support community events, and learn to listen. We need to pay respect and recognise the stories of Aboriginal culture in order to step forwards with reconciliation action in physiotherapy practice,’ Hannah says.

 

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