Indigenous medical student to receive financial boost when they need it most

26 November 2018 | Avant media

Dr Helen Sage feels she has learnt far more from the Indigenous students she has mentored, than they have from her, “I'm constantly in awe of them, of what they can do when given the opportunities”.

Helen recently received $30,000 from the Avant Foundation to support an Indigenous student through their first two years of medical school.

Administered by the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association (AIDA), Dr Penny Browne, Chair of the Avant Foundation Board (pictured) says Avant are very proud to be offering the scholarship, “If we can help one more Indigenous student become a doctor, they will not only contribute to better health outcomes for all Australians but also become a role model for other Indigenous young people to follow.”

Helen is a non-Indigenous associate member of AIDA and was in Perth for their yearly conference when we spoke to her.

“I became aware of a great need.”

It was a chance offer from Rotary to sponsor an Indigenous medical student that opened Helen’s eyes to the stark gaps that exist in health outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

“I became aware of the great need for more Indigenous doctors, nurses – all health workers,” Helen says.

Boasting an Oxford Rhodes Scholar as one of its mentees, Helen set up Australia’s first independent mentoring program for Indigenous medical students, Flinders Adelaide Indigenous Medical Mentoring (FAIMM), back in 2008. This was in response to the high number of drop-outs of Indigenous students from medicine, particularly in their first year, often due to unique family and community responsibilities or for financial reasons.

Helen also saw first-hand the enormous impact having Indigenous doctors delivering healthcare to Indigenous people has. A GP for more than 40 years, now retired from practice, Helen worked as a fly-in-fly-out medico in a remote health service, Umoona Tjutagku in Cooper Pedy, in the last four years of her career.

Helen describes the instant rapport Indigenous communities have with Indigenous doctors and fondly remembers one particular registrar who accompanied her on a number of visits.

“The community just loved him. The patients queued up to see him and nobody wanted to see me. Of course as a woman, the men in particular were not so keen to see me. There is lack of trust for non-Indigenous doctors. You’re seen as an authority figure and there’s a general suspicion of authority, all borne from experience. As soon as the Indigenous doctor turns up, the mistrust is gone,” Helen says.

Closing the gap

Helen points out that we haven’t got very far with closing the gap and that we’ve actually gone backwards in certain categories. “We have 200 Indigenous doctors in Australia right now and we have 300 more students coming up. We need 2,000 Indigenous doctors for parity with the Indigenous population. But we also know Indigenous people have more medical needs than non-Indigenous,' which is why Helen says we need more.

“If this scholarship can allow one more Indigenous student to graduate as a doctor, this is helping to close the gap. This Avant Foundation Grant will make a big difference,” she adds.

Mentoring but so much more

FAIMM has mentored 30 students since it started ten years ago, with six students matched with six more senior doctor-mentors from different specialties. It has grown to include dentistry students and has 12 mentees this year who meet regularly one-on-one with their mentors and as a group once a term. The mentor work naturally spills into other things such as advocacy, career counselling and professional introductions because as Helen says, “Non-Indigenous medical students often have family members who are doctors, but this is not the same for Indigenous students. We’re trying to be a medical family for these people”.

Naturally the students who have graduated come back to the group to support the students which they find very inspiring. “We have been able to establish a great network of Indigenous doctors out there supporting one another,” Helen says.

FAIMM visits high schools to encourage Indigenous students to think about health careers. They also make sure Indigenous medical students can attend the AIDA conferences.

Helen says a lot of the students who come through are keen to give back to their community but she warns it’s important not to impose expectations on them. She says to the students, “You are a role model, you are increasing the number of Indigenous doctors, you are encouraging other young Indigenous people to do medicine. If you want to work in your community then that will be great. But if you want to be a plastic surgeon working on movies stars in New York then you go for it!”

According to Helen though, many of the students do want to give back to the community and are very interested in Indigenous affairs.

“If we can get them through that first year, they’re very successful,” Helen says in closing.

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