Indigenous education founded on mutual respect

Dec 4 2014

By Dr Kym Rae, Gomeroi gaaynggal program coordinator

The Gomeroi gaaynggal program is an ArtsHealth program operating in the Taminda area of Tamworth, using a positive strengths-based approach to building health education for Aboriginal women throughout their pregnancy and during the early childhood years.

This program connects with young women, their infants and children, families and the Elders groups of Tamworth (Gubba Binaal, and KADS) and the Walhallow Elders.

Running alongside this community education program is a health research study of international significance, which is trying to understand the origins of renal disease in Aboriginal women and their infants. This program has gained funding of over $3.5 million dollars in the past seven years and has the largest cohort of Indigenous women in pregnancy in the world.

This research is hoping to understand, diagnose and treat the high levels of end stage of renal disease that is afflicting the Aboriginal communities of Australia and other Indigenous peoples of the world.

Aspects of our research program include studying the impact of foetal growth and gestational age on development of the kidney in new born babies and identifying risk factors in the mother that may cause pre term birth and intra-uterine growth retardation.

We have found that 19 per cent of our young Indigenous mothers have high levels of protein in their urine and are therefore at risk of kidney disease. This would not have been detected if it was not for the Gomeroi gaaynggal program. Having identified these women we have now developed pathways to prevent further progression of kidney disease.

We believe that health education for our young mothers is critical for improving the general health in Indigenous communities. Our program is delivered in partnership with a large number of organisations – University of Newcastle Faculty of Health, Hunter New England Local Health District, HMRI, Community Health, Maternity Services, Oral Health and Population Health, Medicare Local staff and Women’s Refuge.

Education is a two-way process. Each health staff member must undertake an art work and the participants teach the health staff how to best do this. At the same time, the health staff deliver their health message and assist with organisation of appointments as needed.

Education is a slow, gentle process based on mutual respect. We take a whole-of-community approach to education, thus the Elders, and the women and their children are all involved in the ArtsHealth program.

In conjunction with our Artshealth program, health education and research studies, Gomeroi gaaynggal offers a free monthly ultrasound clinic to all Indigenous mums. The combined information gained from all of these programs gives us a very intimate snapshot of the health of the mums during their pregnancy and as well as the mums & bubs after the birth.

This has benefited the participants on a number of occasions through early detection of health issues. This then enables our centre staff to provide not only holistic support but also links within the sometimes overwhelming medical system.