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24 October 2018

Australia is a vast, expansive landmass. The further you go into its remote communities, the thinner the resources are – including vital services like healthcare.

This is the challenge the Outback Division of General Practice (ODGP) wants to address. It’s a non-government specialty provider, designed to strengthen service access and improve health outcomes for some of Australia’s most isolated communities. Dawn Howlett works at ODGP as an Aboriginal Health Practitioner, improving the health of people living in the remote NSW town of Bourke, nearly 400 kilometres from Dubbo and 800 kilometres from Sydney.

“The service plays a great role in keeping my people – Aboriginal people – out of hospital. It keeps them independent and living healthy,” Dawn says. “We’re pretty isolated out here in Bourke. The services we provide keep care in the community, so patients don’t have to worry about travelling too much.”

Dawn grew up in the local area and has been working in healthcare since 1971, starting as a nursing assistant at the Bourke District Hospital. Since then she’s travelled around rural NSW, helping to bring local healthcare into Lightning Creek and Tamworth. Today, her role is centred on chronic disease management.

“Through all the years that I’ve worked in Aboriginal health and in nursing, we were always told that our lifespan was shorter than the average Australian. So keeping on top of chronic disease management is important,” Dawn says.

“My role is doing health checks. Every three months I recall patients to check their blood pressure and weight – that type of thing. I update their plans and make sure their appointments are being kept. That’s why I like My Health Record – it’s ideal for chronic disease management.”

Vitally important

Dawn’s view of My Health Record is shaped by more than her role as a medical professional. She was recently diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and needs oxygen therapy. She also has Graves’ disease, an immune system disorder that impacts the thyroid.

“I’d like to retire shortly and I’m likely to leave the community,” Dawn says. “I want My Health Record to follow me. I don’t want to be going to the next doctor and having to explain everything that’s wrong with me.

“With chronic disease, we’re sick and we’re not going to get any better. So we need to look after ourselves, we need to know about all of our appointments and the medication we’re on.”

Complex community needs

This chronic disease management experience is why Dawn is such an advocate for My Health Record, especially for Bourke’s Aboriginal communities.

“My Health Record is vitally important to me so I like to get that across to my patients,” Dawn says. “I use it myself and explain why I’d like them to consider it.”

People often make the mistake of thinking their health information already exists in a centralised network, where it can be accessed by any doctor. Given the large Indigenous population of Bourke, Dawn says this issue can crop up when people are travelling and a health issue strikes.

“We’re a pretty transient mob of people – we’re a family of extended families,” she says. “We could be living in Canberra next week or we could be up on the Gold Coast because we have relatives all over the place. To have My Health Record follow us around would be great.

“If someone collapsed somewhere and was rushed to hospital where nobody knew them, it could be looked up on My Health Record. The help will be much quicker. It could saves lives.”

Ensuring that patients are aware of their My Health Record choices is a priority for Dawn.

“Now that ODGP has come on board with My Health Record I can see the importance in my position of educating the community about it,” she says. “There’s a lot of detail and people have a lot of questions. It’s important for them to know they have a choice.”