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Time to launch NATSIHP

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New Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made it clear he wants to reshape the focus and direction of the Coalition Government. He talks of a modern Government with modern approaches. Let’s hope this enthusiasm translates to Indigenous health.

While former PM Tony Abbott made a virtue of his commitment to Indigenous issues – including his pledge to spend a week each year living and working in an Indigenous community – genuine new policy rollout was slow under his leadership.

A prime example of this is the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan (NATSIHP).

In July 2013, the former Labor Government launched a new NATSIHP, which set out a 10-year framework for the direction of Government policy to improve the appalling health status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The plan had bipartisan support.

The development of the NATSIHP was a clear example of the Government working in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to achieve improved health outcomes for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

But, in the two years since the launch of the NATSIHP, we are yet to see the new Government put its commitment into action.

The Government has developed an Implementation Plan for the NATSIHP, but has not yet launched it.

The Implementation Plan provides the basic architecture for turning the NATSIHP into concrete action. More work on defining service models, workforce requirements, and funding strategies is needed.

Guided by the Implementation Plan, the NATSIHP is capable of driving real progress towards the best possible health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and could realise health gains in a relatively short period of time.

To achieve these improvements, a key strategy is for the Government to identify areas of poor health and inadequate services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and direct investment accordingly.

This must include increased support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled health services to enable them to fulfil their pivotal role in improving health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The NATSIHP recognises that culture is central to the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and this must be reflected in practical ways throughout the actions of the NATSIHP Implementation Plan.

The NATSIHP broke new ground with the identification of racism as a key driver of ill-health. The implementation of the NATSIHP must provide a clear focus on strategies to address racism, and strengthen the cultural safety of Australia’s healthcare system.

This includes identifying and eradicating systemic racism within the health system and improving access to, and outcomes across, primary, secondary, and tertiary health care.

While we need to continue to strengthen health care, we also need to enhance our focus on building pathways into the health profession for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as well as supporting the existing Indigenous health workforce.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are significantly underrepresented across all health professions, particularly medicine, nursing and allied health. This must change.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professionals are an important resource to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, as they are able to use their unique cultural and clinical expertise to contribute to greater health outcomes for Indigenous people.

Specific actions to address Indigenous health workforce shortages must be reflected in the actions of the NATSIHP Implementation Plan.

NATSIHP implementation is long overdue. It must occur without further delay.

The initial Implementation Plan was to be developed within 12 months of the NATSIHP’s release. That time is long gone.

At a Senate Estimates hearing in June, Government officials indicated that the Implementation Plan for the NATSIHP was still being developed, and that it would be released soon. That was three months ago, and still no action.

PM Turnbull strengthened and reordered his Health portfolio team upon taking over the leadership, with now Rural Health Minister Senator Fiona Nash retaining responsibility for Indigenous health. I will be discussing the inactivity on NATSIHP with her at the earliest opportunity.

The AMA’s Indigenous Health Taskforce is keen to see the Government make NATSIHP a reality – and a success story.