Research Aimed at Improving Cancer Services to Indigenous People

By Petrina Smith
Monday, 13 January, 2014

A national group of researchers has been awarded a grant of $2.5million to improve cancer services to Indigenous people throughout Australia.

Over the past 30 years, improvements in cancer treatments have resulted in better cancer survival in the wider community. Unfortunately, these same benefits have not been seen for Indigenous Australians who continue to experience much poorer outcomes after diagnosis with cancer.

The Health and Medical Research Council grant of  $2.5m over five years  was presented to a national group including researchers at The University of Western (UWA) Australia’s School of Primary, Aboriginal and Rural Health Care ($326,000).

UWA’s Winthrop Professor Sandy Thompson and Dr Shaouli Shahid said Aboriginal people with cancer have similar issues to non-Indigenous people but also have distinctive care needs. They are leading a group of researchers investigating innovative models of care delivery around Australia to see if they can help other cancer treatments centres to adapt. This includes end-of-life care and training ‘navigators’ who can help Aboriginal people navigate through the health system, from getting a positive test result after screening, to diagnosis and during all the treatment steps.

The researchers have already undertaken research that shows Aboriginal people often have to cope with big distances to get to cancer-treatment centres. They also have to deal with their fear of the disease and a lack of knowledge about its treatment, fear of leaving their own country, the costs of transport and treatment, and anxiety over who would care for the rest of the family while they were away. They also have to come to terms with regimented treatment protocols. For all these reasons, many Indigenous people with cancer do not seek treatment.

Because cancer treatment requires a large multidisciplinary team and expensive equipment, it can only be provided in cities and a few large regional centres.

Professor Thompson and Dr Shahid said some centres, such as one in the Northern Territory, appear to provide a good model for cancer care for Indigenous Australians. It had sensitive clinicians, was welcoming and able to work in a family context, made spoken information available in several Aboriginal languages and offered explanations about treatment that non-medical people could understand.

“Because Aboriginal people weren’t even considered to be Australian citizens until 1967, we had underdeveloped data about cancer rates among them,” Professor Thompson said. “We know that risk factors are increasing as society changes, for example becoming increasingly sedentary like other Australians.

“We are gathering data now – and focusing on building more partnerships with groups such as the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health, the Cancer Council and the lead institution for this project, the Menzies School of Health Research.”

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