Putting an Indigenous health curriculum front and centre

Professor Dennis McDermott

Having the Hard Conversations, a symposium and roundtable hosted by Flinders University on April 21 and 22, will discuss strategies for making an Indigenous curriculum central, not peripheral, to courses in health education.

The program brings together Australian and overseas educators and experts to discuss ways in which to help individuals and institutions engage fully with training on Indigenous health issues – and ways to work effectively – even when they find the content challenging.

One of the challenges for the students and health practitioners who take up the Indigenous curriculum is acknowledging the history of abuse and mistreatment endured by Indigenous people since white settlement.

“Coming to grips with the shared history of Australia can be a profoundly disturbing experience for some people,” said symposium organiser Professor Dennis McDermott, National Teaching Research Fellow at the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health and Wellbeing at Flinders.

“It can make them want to push it away,” he said.

“What are doing is looking for the right educational approach for people to make them stay engaged.”

Programs of learning aimed at increasing understanding of Indigenous culture are frequently treated as optional add-ons or ‘soft’ topics, but Professor McDermott and his colleagues argue that their importance is fundamental.

“Our role is to help people realise that becoming a culturally-safe practitioner is central to being effective as a clinician or health promotion professional, because if you don’t get it right, Indigenous people will vote with their feet: they may well discount the therapy, they may not believe that there’s value in taking their medication – they could disengage from the process.”

“Lack of trust from a patient can result in poor communication that in turn can produce misdiagnosis and incorrect treatment.”

Professor McDermott said that the experience of overseas jurisdictions often replicates the local, and the forum will hear presentations from Dr Barry Lavallee of the University of Manitoba, former head of the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada, and also hear of the work of the Provincial Health Services in British Columbia, Canada, which has introduced an online cultural safety program that has, so far, trained 21,000 of its employees.

In addition to discussions on teaching and learning approaches, and on classroom and online curricula, there will also be a session on fostering institutional change. Professor McDermott said resistance to an Indigenous health curriculum can be found at the level of schools and faculties within a university, and also across organisations such as hospitals.

He said one way to ensure an Indigenous curriculum receives due recognition is to promote its importance and value to the relevant accreditation bodies, and peak Indigenous health professional organisations will join with the Australian Nurses and Midwives Accreditation Council and the Australian Medical Council in working through these issues at the symposium.

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