The AMA a persistent and powerful voice on Indigenous health
By Professor Ian Ring, Professorial Fellow at the Australian Health Services Research Institute, University of Wollongong. Professor Ring has worked with the AMA on Indigenous health issues for more than 20 years.
Nothing exemplifies quite so clearly the AMA’s concern with issues far broader than simply representing the interests of doctors as does its role in Aboriginal health.
That interest is broad in scope, genuine and effective, and dates at least from Dr Brendan Nelson’s term as AMA President in the mid-1990s.
Almost every President since has shared Dr Nelson’s deep, personal and organisational concern and involvement in Aboriginal health, and that involvement is the specific reason I, and no doubt others, joined the AMA many years ago.
That involvement has taken a variety of forms – lobbying, promoting public awareness through the media, preparing and disseminating annual Report Cards on a wide variety of relevant topics, and active engagement with Indigenous organisations and leaders.
Promoting public awareness of issues regarding Aboriginal health has been central to the AMA’s role and purpose, and has taken many forms.
For example, Keith Woollard and I travelled to New Zealand during his term as President (1996-98), notionally to learn more about international experience in improving Indigenous health, but with a secondary aim of drawing the attention of the Australian media. Both aims were achieved. There was substantial Australian press coverage and, equally, we learnt a lot about the linkage of health services with community, cultural, social and economic programs.
Lobbying has taken many forms.
During the late 1990s, when the lack of progress in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health was seen as an international disgrace and symptomatic of a national failure to come to grips with the issues concerning Australia’s Indigenous peoples, the AMA arranged to bring together political, public service and health leaders in an effort to bring about a more effective focus on Indigenous health.
It organised meetings with the-then Prime Minister John Howard and several of his ministers, including Senator Amanda Vanstone, Michael Wooldridge, Tony Abbott and John Herron and Commonwealth Department secretaries. It also met with Aboriginal leaders and organisations, notably the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) and the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association (AIDA) and other leaders of the medical profession.
The AMA’s role became more institutionalised during Dr Kerryn Phelp’s term with the formation of the AMA Indigenous Taskforce, whose membership was drawn from NACCHO, AIDA, the Indigenous branch of RACGP, Aboriginal health leaders, AMSA , AMA council members and other AMA members with an active involvement in Aboriginal health.
Since its inception, the Taskforce has produced annual Indigenous Health Report Cards highlighting issues including infant health, inequality, incarceration, low birth weight, workforce requirements and Indigenous primary health care.
Under the leadership of the current President Associate Professor Brian Owler, the AMA is an active participant in the Close the Gap campaign and lobbies effectively on matters of key importance to Indigenous health, such as patient co-payments.
This is in keeping with the AMA’s well-established role as a persistent, sustained and powerful voice on Indigenous health for at least the past two decades.
During that time, much has changed for the better, particularly as a result of the Close the Gap campaign – although recent cutbacks to funding are a significant concern.
For the future, the development of the Implementation Plan for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Health Plan will be a priority, including ensuring that it is guided by the voice of Aboriginal people and effectively addresses issues of culture and racism, as well as the practical issues of service models, building service capacity and ensuring an adequate workforce and funding.