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Closing the gap through allied health

by Rosanna Galvin

Graduating Occupational Therapy student Trevor Ritchie with lecturer Emma George.Graduating Occupational Therapy student Trevor Ritchie with lecturer Emma George.

As the university year comes to a close, UniSA student Trevor Ritchie will complete his Occupational Therapy (OT) degree and become the first Indigenous occupational therapist in South Australia. For Trevor, the milestone is an important step forward in closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is significantly shorter than non-Indigenous Australians and they experience higher rates of preventable illness such as heart disease and diabetes. Growing up in rural South Australia, Trevor experienced this health inequity firsthand, which is what led him to study OT at UniSA.

“I grew up in the country on an Aboriginal mission called Point Pearce and as a child I always had health issues,” Trevor says.

“I chose to study OT because of these health issues and because the core values of OT – equity, social justice and a holistic approach to health – align with my own values.

“As the first Aboriginal occupational therapist in South Australia I have a sense and a passion to lead and support the others coming after me. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the enormity of closing the gap in Aboriginal health inequity but I am committed to playing my part.

“As a health professional I hope I’ll be able to push for generational change through my personal interactions with Aboriginal clients, ensuring they are provided with the best evidenced-based care. I want to be proactive in the development of holistic policy that supports health outcomes for Aboriginal people, taking into account the social determinants of health such as education and housing employment.”

Trevor’s achievements during his time at UniSA were recently acknowledged at the Indigenous Allied Health Awards, where he took out the national Indigenous Allied Health Student achievement award.

UniSA OT lecturer Emma George says Trevor’s participation and engagement in courses and university life has helped advocate for the inclusion of Indigenous health issues in the OT curriculum. An instrumental journal article published in 2011 sparked her to think about the role Indigenous allied health professionals play in closing the gap.

Since then, the lecturer has been working with the OT team on developing curriculum so that students are more aware of Indigenous health issues throughout their studies.

“In my opinion, the OT profession was called to account in an editorial in the Australian Occupational Therapy Journal published in 2011. The piece put forward the question: Can OT respond to the challenge to ‘Close the gap’?” she explains.

“This made me reflect on the Indigenous health and inequity content in our courses. As a result we now incorporate Indigenous health issues across the curriculum and I believe the degree reflects the OT profession’s increasing focus and awareness of health inequity for Indigenous people and communities in Australia.

“Students are now learning more about health inequity in Australia and the challenges and opportunities for allied health professionals to invest in health from a grassroots, community-led approach.

“Our graduates have a greater understanding of the vital role of Indigenous health workers as well as the importance of partnership as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people work together for the health of our nation. This is important for all students, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, and I hope it helps to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous health.”

Emma and Trevor recently spoke at the Indigenous Allied Health Australia conference held in Adelaide, giving a presentation titled ‘A new chapter for occupational therapy in South Australia’. The conference presentation signalled an important milestone of Trevor’s degree and he hopes to remain actively involved in education after he graduates in March.

“For the future, I hope to promote the recruitment and retention of Aboriginal students at university, and to enable more Aboriginal professional health workers in our communities,” he says.

“On a personal level, I have recently become a father and my aim is for my son and my son’s community to have a better life than mine.”