Why we need to support more Indigenous-led health services


Tanya Denning-Orman

Tanya Denning-Orman, Channel Manager at NITV

Tanya Denning-Orman, Channel Manager at NITV Photo: Supplied

My mum's name is Lilly. She puts me to shame in many ways. She is a healthy Aboriginal woman, 65 years old and was recently given some rare news from her doctor. Excitedly, he explained that her cholesterol levels had dropped. It's something that he rarely gets the opportunity to say to older Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people – 'you're getting healthier'. But fighting against the norm, Lilly is. She walks everywhere and makes healthy choices – because she can.

My mum uses education, choice and a rock hard determination to not only improve her health, but also the health of our people. Living in Central Queensland, she has dedicated most of her working life as a health worker to improving the lives and experiences of others.

More than anyone else, she makes me feel like I am standing on the shoulders of all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who came before me.

Chronic health disease resonates with every Indigenous community and every Indigenous family, where sickness is unfortunately just a way of life. My own childhood was marred by this. I saw my Nan suffering from tuberculosis and diabetes, whilst my grandfathers passed as middle-aged men do, way before their time.


Through the years, my mum constantly educated us about the importance of healthy choices - she worked hard for us to have a choice. She ensured we knew that we had a choice.

I chose an Aboriginal Medical Service for my pre and anti-natal care and for my son to be born with an Aboriginal midwife. It felt right. I chose to put my baby's and my health into the hands of someone I trusted to have the knowledge and the cultural sensitivity of the issues that confronted us. It is now 45 years since the first Aboriginal Medical Service started up in Redfern.

Since then, there have been numerous examples of Indigenous-controlled health success stories, including the Mums and Babies program at the Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Health Services, the 'Nutrition: at the heart of good health' initiative by the Jalaris Aboriginal Corporation; the Good Food, Great Kids project at the Yarra Valley Community Health Service and the Healthy Housing Worker program at the Murdi Paaki Regional Housing Corporation.

Whilst these programs are diverse, their commonality is powerful and relevant - local people with the control and empowerment to find solutions at their local level, with successful outcomes for the health issues they confront.

Chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart diseases are the principal causes of early death amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Health professionals agree that improving diet and nutrition is a fundamental starting point to tackling these issues, where removing barriers to obtaining healthy food and promoting healthy nutrition amongst Indigenous families are the key first steps. Indigenous peoples have thousands of years of bush food knowledge bringing healthy and sustainable living - even the farm produce on missions was healthier than the food offered in community stores today.

Our people are very aware of our health. Whilst health indicators tell us we aren't where we should be, Indigenous health workers are tireless advocates for holistic and preventative healthcare.

The answers to the Indigenous health crisis are clear. Indigenous communities are capable of finding the solutions. Indigenous health workers like my mum are living proof – individuals that are dedicated and working hard to provide solutions. Through improved knowledge of and access to health services, increased resourcing, cultural sensitivity and empowering local communities in the health planning processes, we will significantly improve outcomes.

The health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is unacceptable. From mental health to heart disease and everything in between, it's a continuing crisis that affects the young and old with no obvious signs of a resolution. Raising awareness of Close the Gap and all it represents is an essential and positive step in the right direction, however, targets need to be achieved by effective action.

Linked closely to other areas of Indigenous disadvantage, Indigenous consultation is imperative in all areas of Closing the Gap. Our people are key to our solutions, as is appropriate funding to ensure that essential services, like water, electricity, education and healthcare are prioritised within communities.

Only then we will see a consistent improvement in health statistics and start to realise the dream of Closing the Gap of life expectancy by 2030.

Only then will we bring about real change so that Lilly's story won't stand in isolation.

Tanya Denning-Orman is a proud Birri & Guugu Yimithirr woman from FNQ and Channel Manager at NITV – nitv.org.au #NITV