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Why cultural understanding is critical for Indigenous Health

2 min read
Indigenous Health

In light of National Reconciliation Week, it’s a crucial time to reflect on the ongoing need for cultural safety and awareness when it comes to providing healthcare for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“National Reconciliation Week is a crucial time for all Australians to reflect on our shared histories and take collective action towards a reconciled future. Now, more than ever, we must stand together to uphold the rights and voices of First Nations peoples, tackle racism, and foster respect and understanding,” says Scott Willis, a Palawa man and the President of the Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA).

This year’s theme, “Now More Than Ever,” highlights how much work is still needed to tackle the systemic barriers that prevent equitable health outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

One of the biggest hurdles is the lack of cultural understanding and safety within the healthcare system itself. “To start achieving real change and respecting First Nations peoples, we need to remove the barriers to accessing healthcare. Cultural safety is one of the first barriers that non-Indigenous practitioners can work towards,” Willis explains.

Recent data shows that nearly a third of Indigenous Australians avoided seeking medical care due to cultural reasons, language barriers, or fears of discrimination. This statistic underscores the pressing need for healthcare providers to foster an environment of respect and inclusivity for their Indigenous patients.

“Understanding our history and the cultural and social determinants is a great start, but acknowledging intergenerational trauma and ongoing discrimination, respecting and engaging with Indigenous-led research, and leading your own path to cultural competency greatly helps address the negative impacts on First Nations peoples’ health outcomes of the current system,” Willis states.

The physiotherapy and broader allied health fields have a particularly vital role to play in supporting the health of First Nations communities. However, there remains low utilisation of these services among Indigenous Australians – a problem rooted in distrust, lack of understanding, financial barriers, and limited access to culturally safe care.

“Physiotherapy, and the wider allied health industry, play an essential role in improving health outcomes for First Nations peoples.”

“Physiotherapists provide their patients with the skills and strategies to address a range of conditions and to prevent and manage chronic disease. However, there is low utilisation of physiotherapy among First Nations peoples.”

This is underpinned by a distrust of the health system, a lack of understanding of the role of physiotherapy, financial barriers, and limited access to culturally safe services,” Willis notes.

As National Reconciliation Week commemorates milestones like the 1967 referendum and the Mabo decision, it serves as a powerful reminder that true reconciliation requires ongoing truth-telling, education, and meaningful engagement with First Nations peoples.

The APA is committed to this journey through the development of a new Reconciliation Action Plan. “Through our RAP, the APA embeds reconciliation into the core of our organisation and empowers our members to contribute positively to this important national movement. Cultural safety is not just an ‘add-on’; it is essential to ensuring equitable health outcomes for First Nations peoples,” Willis says.

Fostering cultural safety is fundamental to providing quality, compassionate healthcare for all Australians. As Willis states plainly, “Now, more than ever, we must stand together to uphold the rights and voices of First Nations peoples, tackle racism, and foster respect and understanding.”

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