Attitudes and characteristics of health professionals working in Aboriginal health
O'Donnell, Kim Michelle
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There is an unacceptable gap in health status between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Australia. Linked to social inequalities in health and political and historical marginalisation, this health gap must be urgently addressed. It is important that health professionals, the majority of whom in Australia are non-Aboriginal, are confident and equipped to work in Aboriginal health in order to contribute towards closing the health gap. The purpose of this study was to explore the attitudes and characteristics of non-Aboriginal health professionals working in Aboriginal health. Methods: The research was guided and informed by a social constructionist epistemology and a critical theoretical approach. It was set within a larger healthy eating and physical activity program delivered in one rural and one metropolitan community in South Australia from 2005 to 2010. Non-Aboriginal staff working in the health services where the program was delivered and who had some experience or an interest working in Aboriginal health were invited to participate in a semi-structured interview. Dietitians working across South Australia (rural and metropolitan locations) were also invited to participate in an interview. Data were coded into themes that recurred throughout the interview and this process was guided by critical social research. Results: Thirty-five non-Aboriginal health professionals participated in a semi-structured interview about their experiences working in Aboriginal health. The general attitudes and characteristics of non-Aboriginal health professionals were classified using four main groupings, ranging from a lack of practical knowledge (‘don’t know how’), a fear of practice (‘too scared’), the area of Aboriginal health perceived as too difficult (‘too hard’) and learning to practice regardless (‘barrier breaker’). Workers in each group had different characteristics including various levels of willingness to work in the area; various understandings of Australia’s historical relationship with Aboriginal peoples; varying awareness of their own cultural identity and influence on working with Aboriginal people; and different levels of (dis)comfort expressed in discussions about social, political and intercultural issues that impact on the healthcare encounter. Conclusions: These groupings can be used to assist non-Aboriginal health professionals to reflect on their own levels of confidence, attitudes, characteristics, experiences, approaches and assumptions to Aboriginal health, as an important precursor to further practice and development in Aboriginal health. By encouraging self-reflection of non-Aboriginal health professionals about where their experiences, characteristics and confidence lie, the groupings presented in this paper can be used to encourage non-Aboriginal health professionals, rather than Aboriginal clients or workers, to be the focus for change and deliver health care that is more acceptable to patients and clients, hence influencing health service delivery. The groupings presented can also begin to enable discussions between all health professionals about working together in Aboriginal health.