East Arnhem Health Partnership Symposium

The leafy grounds of Gulkula, renowned for hosting the Garma festival, welcomed a different kind of crowd last week.

A flurry of local health professionals, workers, researchers, and academics filed into the site, where they set up camp for two days, to discuss local health perspectives and partnerships for the inaugural East Arnhem Health Partnership Symposium, a collaboration between Northern Territory PHN, HOT NORTH, Miwatj Health, Menzies School of Health Research, and Northern Territory Government.

The packed program kicked off with Yolŋu and Anindilyakwa perspectives on health with keynote speaker Terrance Guyula, an Aboriginal Health Practitioner for NT Centre for Disease Control, who highlighted what health means for Yolŋu people and the barriers they face when accessing the health system.

“Health is about looking after each other, our family, and our country,” he said.

“It’s very hard when the language used is in Western medical terms. We need to put those terms into language Yolŋu people can understand”. 

Terrance went on to describe the health system as a fishing net. For many people, the fishing net catches lots of fish, but there’s always a hole in that net for Aboriginal people. Everybody needs to come together to mend that hole.

There was a strong feeling in the room that there needed to be more support and training for Aboriginal Health Practitioners as well as involvement from elders particularly around tackling alcohol and other drug issues amongst the younger community.

“There needs to be more work between Dhuwa and Yirritja moieties. Not many Balinda understand the healing of songlines and stories on country” said one audience member.

Flinders University and James Cook University representatives delved into how we could develop our health workforce through building trust and relationships as well as using student-implemented allied health services to improve the health and wellbeing of older people for East Arnhem.

Representatives from the local Yolŋu community, Mitwatj Health, Flexible Aged Care, and Kaunitz Yeung Architects took the floor to talk about the 20-year co-design project of creating a community centre that takes care of the elderly while elevating the role of young people to care for their elders in paid health worker roles.

The model of care, staff training, and identifying young people to work in the facility are still in development, as is work around an inter-generational program connecting schools in the area to the centre. As one speaker noted, “it’s a place to educate inter-generational activities, it’s not an aged care facility”.

Designs for the building are well underway, which reflect the many voices across East Arnhem Land including knowledge around what plants to grow in the surrounding garden, how the air should flow, the use of natural light, and the display of local art.

The conversation then turned to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), where programs such as Outreach were recognised for being the only avenue in making the NDIS affordable and accessible to those living on country in what is a very complex scheme to navigate.

While the official program wrapped up for day one, people continued into the night to tell stories around the campfire.

Day two featured concurrent sessions of women’s business and men’s business.

The women’s session featured local guests flown in from Galiwin’ku to talk about their djäkamirr program. A djäkamirr is an Indigenous doula or childbirth companion who is skilled in providing cultural, emotional, and spiritual support to Yolŋu women during childbirth especially when they have to leave their country to give birth.

The program adopts a culturally appropriate model of care not only bio-physically but also deals with socio-cultural and spiritual risks that are not dealt with in the current system. Importantly, it aims to reduce the number of pre-term births currently at 21% for Aboriginal women compared to 7% for non-Aboriginal women.

Throughout the day, other areas and topics included were how research translates to practice, rheumatic heart disease, and improving diabetes health outcomes.

As the sun set on a big two days, a group of women set up under the stringybark trees to peel pandanus leaves for weaving. As they chatted amongst themselves, their hands methodically moving over the leaves, the question that lingered in many minds was how we can come together to combine traditional healing with today’s health system to see better health outcomes for the Yolŋu and Anindilyakwa community.

While we may still be figuring out the answers, there’s no doubt the sense of optimism and genuine wish for everyone to work together towards the same thing will happen. Or as Terrance put it “We’ll get there. It will happen”.