Experts say racism is affecting health outcomes for many First Nation Peoples

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Santilla Chingaipe SBS Radio 21 February 2014

(Transcript from World News Radio report - See Audio above)

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... It's well known that Indigenous Australians have much lower life expectancy than other Australians, and have disproportionately high rates of diseases and other health problems.

The Social Determinants of Health Alliance is a group of Australian health, social services and public policy organisations.

It lobbies for action to reduce inequalities in the outcomes from health service delivery.

Chair of the Alliance, Martin Laverty, has no doubt racism sometimes comes into play when Indigenous Australians seek medical attention.

"When an Indigenous person is admitted to hospital, they face twice the risk of death through a coronary event than a non-Indigenous person and concerningly, Indigenous people when having a coronary event in hospital are 40 percent less likely to receive a stent* or a coronary angiplasty. The reason for this is that good intentions, institutional racism is resulting in Indigenous people not always receiving the care that they need from Australia's hospital system."

Romlie Mokak is the chief executive of the Australian Indigenous Doctors' Association.

Mr Mokak says the burden of ill health is already greater amongst Indigenous people - but this isn't recognised when they go to access health services.

"Whereas Aboriginal people may present to hospitals often later and sicker, the sort of treatment they might get once in hospital, is not necessarily reflect that higher level of ill health. We've got to ask some questions there and why is it that the sickest people are not necessary getting the equitable access to healthcare."

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Mr Mokak says many Indigenous people are victims of prejudice when seeking medical services.

"If you (Indigenous patient) go to a health service and you're made to feel unwelcome, or uncomfortable or not deserving or prejudged and there are lots of scenarios of Aborginal people being considered to be perhaps being seriously intoxicated when in fact they've been seriously ill."

But Romlie Mokak from the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association says the onus shouldn't be on the federal government alone to improve the situation.

He suggests cultural awareness training for health professionals would reduce the incidence of racism.

"Not only is it at the point of the practitioner, but it's the point of the institution that Aboriginal people must feel that they are in a safe environment. In order to do this, it's not simply that Aboriginal people should feel resilient and be able to survive these wider systems, but those services really need to have staff that have a strong understanding of Aboriginal people's culture, history, lived experience and the sorts of health concerns they might have and ways of working competently with Aboriginal people."

Martin Laverty says at a recent conference, data was presented suggesting an increase in the number of Australians experiencing racism.

And he says one of the results is an increase in psychological illnesses.

"We saw evidence that said about 10 percent of the Australian population in 2004 was reporting regular occurences of individual acts of racism and that that has now double to being close to 20 percent of the Australian population reporting regular occurences of racism. We then saw evidence that the consequences of this are increased psychological illnesses. Psychological illnesses tied directly to a person's exposure to racism and discrimination and that this is having direct cost impacts of the Australian mental health and broader acute health system."

Mr Laverty says it's time governments acknowledged and addressed the impact of factors such as racism on health outcomes.

He says a good start would be to implement the findings of a Senate inquiry into the social determinants of health, released last year.

"In the country of the fair go, we should be seeing Australian governments, Australian communities acting and indentifying these triggers of racism that are causing ill health and recognising that this is not just something the health system that needs to respond to, but the Australian government can respond by implementing the Senate inquiry of March 2013 that outlines the set of steps that can be taken to overcome these detriments of poor social determinants of health."