Clinical placements in NT offer valuable student learning

Rainbow Valley, near Alice Springs NT. credit: Peta Hughes Indigenous Health, MChD, Doctor of Medicine and Surgery, ANU, clinical placement, NT, Alice Springs, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health

It was an opportunity to pursue his love of cricket that drew Mr Akash Patel away from his home town of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory to the city of Adelaide.

“I was considering a professional career as a cricketer, so moving to join a team in Adelaide was a great start,” explains Mr Patel.

However, it was a 2015 visit to Nepal that changed his perspective on the importance of cricket in his life-long goals. While back-packing around the country, a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit, killing approximately 9,000 people.

“The idea of pursuing a career in medicine had always been in the back of my mind but experiencing the earthquake was definitely a turning point. Being confronted by a situation where I was completely helpless to provide meaningful help to people when they needed it, changed my perspective on how much I wanted to pursue sport as a career. After a lot of contemplation, I realised that pursuing medicine was what I wanted to do.”

Since that decision, Mr Patel has been focussed on making a difference to the wellbeing of underserved populations.

“Before entering the Doctor of Medicine and Surgery program I had spent some years working with First Nations young people and time volunteering with the refugee community of Adelaide.”

“Since being in the medical program I’ve started my own social enterprise aimed at helping young refugees in South Australia and led the development of a wellbeing website for the Medical School.”

Now in his third year of the medical program, Mr Patel is back in his home town of Alice Springs, this time undertaking a clinical placement as part of the Indigenous Health stream.

The stream allows students to learn cultural safety and competency skills through hands on work experience in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the Northern Territory.

“The significant disparity in health outcomes and access to healthcare is incredibly visible in the Northern Territory; especially in more remote communities,” Mr Patel says.

“What I’ve noticed is that in order to affect change, there needs be true collaboration and communication between health care workers and First Nations communities.”

Ms Peta Hughes, also an Indigenous Health stream student on clinical placement in Alice Springs, echoes Mr Patel’s sentiments saying, “The best doctors are those who have a genuine interest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and local culture more specifically.”

“They’re able to connect with patients, build a relationship of trust, and a mutual respect for the richness of each other’s experience and knowledge. It was a wonderful teaching moment watching these interactions.”

Ms Hughes goes onto to say, “I know we’ve come a long way in the last 50 years but we still have a long way to travel to create an equitable health care system that works for Indigenous communities.”

“For example, in the renal ward I saw a much greater prevalence and younger onset of chronic kidney disease in Aboriginal people than non-Indigenous people. It can be challenging and frustrating to see the disparity in outcomes.”

“I’m very grateful for the hands on experience I’ve encountered during my placement as it has allowed me to learn how to be a better doctor for underserved communities,” adds Ms Hughes.

The experience of working with Indigenous communities has led to Mr Patel and Ms Hughes both agreeing they would consider undertaking their intern year as junior doctors back in Alice Springs.

Mr Patel concludes, “Having grown up in the Northern Territory and now completing clinical placements here has made me realise how great the learning opportunities are and how great the need is within these communities. I will definitely be back.”