Ngiare Brown has always wanted to be a doctor.
Dr Ngiare Brown pictured above is currently a NACCHO Public Health Medical Officer
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“From a very young age – seven or eight years old – I really wanted to be a doctor,” she says. “My parents said ‘we don’t mind what you do, as long as you do your best, do what you love, and love what you do.’ I have always seen myself working in health. Lucky for me, my family agreed.”
And lucky for Australia, too, because Ngiare has gone on to become one of the first Aboriginal doctors in the nation – as well as a vibrant, committed and passionate advocate for quality patient care and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health policy, research, workforce and education.
Two things drive Dr Ngiare Brown – pride and commitment: pride in being an Aboriginal woman which, along with the importance of education, was instilled in her by her parents; and commitment to making a difference to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through improved health.
“I am incredibly proud to be an Aboriginal woman,” she says. “I want my children – I have two daughters – to be incredibly proud to be Aboriginal women. And I want every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island person to feel that pride in themselves and their culture.
“I want to be able to contribute to raising tens of thousands of beautiful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in an environment where they will feel safe and proud.
“There is a lot to be done and I just hope I am doing enough and doing it right.”
Ngiare graduated from the University of Newcastle, obtained a Masters of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, and has held a range of positions including Indigenous Health Advisor to the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales and the Australian National University, Manager of Preventative Indigenous Health Programs for World Vision Australia, and foundation Chief Executive Officer for the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association in 2002-2003. In 2005, she was awarded the AMA’s Woman in Medicine for her major contribution to the medical profession. She has recently commenced as Medical Officer for the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association.
Having followed her destiny with energy and conviction, she’s now encouraging others to get involved with Aboriginal health, either as a change in career direction, or as a brand new career. Do so, she says, and you could be making the most personally and professionally rewarding decision of your life.
Ngiare’s vision is for her people to achieve equity, justice, respect and acknowledgment – and one of the pivotal ways to do this is through better health.
This is why she is an enthusiastic advocate of the Australian Government’s campaign to attract more people into careers in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. She knows that improvement in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health cannot happen without having in place an appropriately resourced and trained health workforce. It’s a two-fold challenge. Over time, the challenge is to attract more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into health careers. In the short term, the need is to increase the number of experienced professionals working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health is everybody’s business,” Ngiare says. “We need to create an environment where people are aware of the issues in attracting people, both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous, into health careers. We need to support and promote the aspirations of young Aboriginal people, acknowledge the role of people currently in the workforce, and provide incentives and rewards for those who choose to work in Aboriginal health.
“For experienced professionals, there are many options in Indigenous health. It might mean working as a locum with an Aboriginal Medical Service, doing a short term clinical placement, or relocating to a regional or remote area.
“To my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters who are working in health related roles, I say: we come from a long and proud tradition of storytelling. By sharing our stories, we can encourage more of our mob to join our ranks. We can also help current and future generations of health care providers to get to know us and better understand what it is like for our families and communities.”
With her diversity of training and experience, there’s not much Ngiare doesn’t know about Aboriginal health. “I guess I’m a Jack of all trades, master of none,” she says. “There are many things that I don’t know or am yet to learn, but I think I do have a real diversity of experience. That has been really important for me in terms of developing a broad perspective and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.”
Ngiare has seen first-hand both the challenges involved in Aboriginal health, and some of the triumphs in meeting those challenges. And, she believes, things are getting better.
“In terms of Aboriginal health and our desire for participation, the fact that we have been able to establish community-controlled health organisations, establish peak bodies for doctors, dentists, physiotherapists, psychologists and other allied health professionals – we have about 150 Aboriginal doctors and the same number of students – that kind of progress has been amazing,” she says. “These sorts of achievements have been made in the last 30, 40 or 50 years – that’s not bad given the historical context in this country, but we can do so much better.
“Some of the most significant barriers remain in the system itself. We need to get that long-term and sustainable commitment to changing the political, electoral and funding cycles.”
For all her own accomplishments, Ngiare doesn’t really see herself as a role model. But if others choose to, that’s not a problem. “I don’t stand up and say I am a role model,” she says. But I do know that it is important to lead by example, to be positive – and I do know that my actions should reflect what I am trying to achieve. If that encourages someone else to be involved in Aboriginal health, that would be wonderful.”
So what sort of people should we be looking to attract into Aboriginal health? “There will be a lot of people who will self-select,” Ngiare says. “There are a great many students and qualified practitioners in a range of disciplines who would be really interested in engaging – some may just not know how to make that first contact.
“To engage other people who may be less interested is more of a challenge – I think they need to have the right attributes and attitude: have an open mind with no pre-conceived notions. Be respectful in any role or relationship. Be able to acknowledge the contribution of others. Have an understanding of the cultural and social aspects that exist through Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. And have clinical confidence, because often you are it 24/7.
“I can tell you – the experience you have in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health will certainly be among the most rewarding and enriching that you could possible envisage, both in a professional sense and in your personal growth and cultural understanding.
“There are plenty of opportunities in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. You just need to start the conversation.”