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More help needed for Aboriginal people navigating health system, study finds from talking to Mid West patients

Jamie ThannooGeraldton Guardian
Geraldton Health Campus.
Camera IconGeraldton Health Campus. Credit: Lisa Favazzo/The Geraldton Guardian

A new study in which researchers spoke to Aboriginal cancer patients and carers from the Mid West and across WA has found many Aboriginal cancer patients struggle with long-distance travel and miscommunication during their treatment.

The researchers recommended bringing in a navigator role to the WA healthcare system, a person who can help an Aboriginal patient navigate these issues throughout their treatment.

The study from the University of Western Australia and Cancer Network WA interviewed seven Aboriginal cancer patients and carers from the Mid West as well as eight others from Perth, Carnarvon, Albany and Pilbara.

The interviews highlighted a number of common issues.

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As many of the interviewees lived in remote locations, the difficulty and stress of managing appointments, travel and accommodation was a major problem, which was compounded by the stress of being “off-Country”, especially when they might pass away.

Another was miscommunication, caused by cultural barriers and medical jargon, which meant many patients felt their concerns were ignored.

Bush medicine and family structures were two cultural areas many interviewees said hospital staff were unfamiliar with.

When he (a patient) went to hospital, he took a big bottle of bush medicine . . . and the doctors are giving him medication, not realising he was taking bush medicines, he didn’t feel comfortable about raising it,” a carer said.

“I think acknowledging Aboriginal peoples’ spirituality too could really help with mental health issues.”

One carer in the study stated how they explained information from a doctor to a patient in a more understandable manner.

“I’d speak to the doctor . . . and later describe the cancer like a tree, breaking down information so people can understand, trees grow roots, translate it to mother nature . . . this is the key issue, making it more easily understood . . . turning it into something from the land is what I try to do,” they said.

The study also found that many family members were put under financial and emotional burden because they felt the need to advocate for a patient.

According to the research, each participant said someone with cultural knowledge, an Aboriginal Patient Navigator, to help guide them would improve their treatment experience.

“They need an advocate to ensure patients’ voices are heard, articulating their needs . . . a navigator could help with your care plan and move around the hospital, help simplify language,” one patient said.

“Then there’s cultural knowledge, knowledge of where people come from and how they’re connected.”

While there are Aboriginal Health Liason Officers at most hospitals, the study argued that these positions are hospital-bound and spread across multiple patients and departments, while this navigator role would see a person linked to a patient throughout their cancer treatment journey.

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