College of Surgeons launches program for Indigenous surgeons

The program aims to reduce the professional health workforce inequity faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.

While there are over 83,000 doctors registered to practice in Australia, fewer than 400 are Indigenous. This is despite over 760,000 people in Australia identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

“In Australia and New Zealand we have a severe shortage of Indigenous surgeons and we need to do everything we can to change this disproportionate under-representation,” said Dr Sally Langley, RACS President.

“The College is committed to addressing this health discrepancy and the program will support this by encouraging and actively recruiting medical students and recent graduates into surgery.”

There are currently almost 7000 active RACS Fellows, Trainees and Specialist International Medical Graduates (SIMG). This translates to roughly 3500 patients per surgeon in Australia.

If applying the same ‘population per surgeon’ formula to Indigenous people, we should have 219 Indigenous surgeons. Currently, we have three. This demographic breakdown highlights the work we have do for the Indigenous community to reach parity with non-Indigenous Australians.

The program will facilitate a comprehensive strategy to prepare and engage Indigenous doctors into specialist training. An increase in the number of Indigenous entrants to the Surgical Education and Training (SET) program would be a great indicator of success.

Professor Kelvin Kong, first Indigenous surgeon in Australia, was encouraged to become a tradie by a careers counsellor at secondary school.

“But everything changed for me when I heard two Aboriginal medical students speak at careers day,” said Professor Kong.

“I knew I wanted to pursue medicine and serve my community.”

With the ISPP in place, there is a firm structure for continuous investigation of support strategies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander surgical Trainees.

“When it comes to ensuring access to surgical care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we must also consider that Indigenous people are much more likely to get and follow medical advice and treatment if there are more Indigenous people represented in the medical workforce,” said Professor Kong.

“When I treated my first Aboriginal patient who was an Elder, the woman started to cry after I had taken an extensive history.”

“I will always remember what she said: ‘I never thought I would live to be treated by an Aboriginal doctor’.

“That cemented in my mind the professional inequity that is rampant in medicine. To have someone understand the trauma she’d been through in her life was huge.”

The program is ongoing and will seek to target students at early stages of their education to highlight to them that medicine, and surgery is a viable career option for them.

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