The Bourke Aboriginal Health Service was established 30 years ago to address early mortality rates in the community. But if you ask Barbara Flick – or Ungi as she’s also known – not enough has changed since.
Ungi is part of the Pademoen Clan of the Yuwallaraay nation. She’s also CEO of the Bourke Aboriginal Health Centre.
Her impressive career in healthcare spans almost half a century. She was the first nurse at the Aboriginal Medical Service Redfern in 1972, ran the biggest GP practice in Darwin and served as National Indigenous Health Advisor to the Australian Medical Association.
With a resume like that, it’s little wonder that Ungi was invited into the Bourke community to work on improving the Aboriginal Health Service six years after her retirement.
“I work in healthcare because I want my grandchildren to grow up to be strong and healthy, to make decisions about what they want to do in life and to maintain their culture and identity,” Ungi says. “When I heard about the situation in Bourke, my heart ached for the families here. I wanted to keep doing something useful, so I accepted their invitation.”
Bourke has a small population of just under 3,000 people and more than 30 per cent are Indigenous. It’s remote, which makes it difficult to attract medical staff. It also has high rates of chronic disease.
“We have a lot of sick people in the community, but exact rates of chronic disease aren’t well known,” Ungi says. “A lot of people don’t get health checks so we can’t identify chronic disease and help treat it.”
The Bourke Aboriginal Health Service offers two main programs – clinical services to treat people who are sick and a chronic disease program to help mitigate community issues. Ungi believes My Health Record will help improve both.
“It will have an enormous positive impact on our population,” Ungi says. “It’s difficult to get a GP in rural and remote areas so we have to staff our clinic with locums. They come for two or three weeks at a time and then go away. During that time with us, they’re more concerned with dealing with the people who turn up at the clinic sick everyday than managing chronic disease.
“With My Health Record, people won’t have to tell the same story to every locum they come across. But practitioners will still be able to see what their conditions and medications are.”
Many of the people in the Indigenous communities also move across the region regularly to visit family. Ungi says My Health Record will ensure continuity of care: “It will make us comfortable in knowing that when people go away, they’ll be taken care of properly.”
Addressing community challenges
On a broader level, My Health Record can improve the health outcomes of the wider Bourke community. As an example, Bourke Aboriginal Health Service is currently running a ‘Too Deadly for Diabetes’ program to help address management of the disease in the community. It’s been a huge success – after seven weeks, one diabetic even went into remission.
“My Health Record will help us keep track of what’s happening. It will help locums review medications and reduce them when necessary,” Ungi says. “It’s not just about knowing what’s wrong with people. By using My Health Record, we can see changes in their illnesses or medications. This is most important for the management and treatment of chronic disease.”
Ungi wants the Bourke community to have better control over their personal health and their lives. Anything that encourages honest conversations with treatment providers is an important part of the solution.
“Our biggest concerns are about people going down that road to the cemetery,” Ungi says. “My Health Record will benefit our community by giving us the information we need to treat people in the most appropriate way, to stem the flow of disease and give people a healthier life.”