Important things to keep in mind when engaging with First Nations people

Ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all ages and cultures is important to building prosperous societies that can grow together.

The health of the Australian population is often considered relatively high performing when compared with other countries (The Commonwealth Fund, 2021). However, despite this accomplishment, a major inequality health gap for First Nations people in Australia still remains prevalent today. This stems from a lack of equal access to primary health care and a number of different factors which lead to unfair and avoidable differences in health outcomes.

A strategy to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, known as Closing the Gap, started in 2007 and is a commitment from all Australian Governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives to a fundamentally new way of developing and implementing policies and programs. Whilst there have been achievements since the launch, including more First Nations babies being born within a healthy birthweight and an improvement to the life expectancy of people born in 2020-22, there is still a long way to go to close the gap.

As Aboriginal culture starts with its people, genuine engagement is a key aspect in understanding the specific needs to deliver accessible, high-quality and timely health care that is culturally appropriate and based on trust and engagement. Improving the cultural safety and cultural responsiveness of the Australian health system is an important step to close the gap in health and wellbeing for First Nations people.

The key challenge is the ongoing impact of colonisation, including systemic racism, disadvantage and intergenerational trauma which continues to have a significant impact on First Nations communities. These are key factors affecting participation and engagement with communities and should not be overlooked.

3 key principles for building trust with First Nations communities

When conducting meaningful engagement with First Nation communities, it is important to consider these three elements:

1 One size does not fit all

First Nations peoples are not a homogenous group, and it is important to understand each individual’s cultural perspective through genuine conversation. As there are more than 250 Indigenous language groups and around 500 nations, each with a wide diversity of rich cultural, geographical, social and kinship structures, a one size fits all approach will not work.

Australia is made up of many different and distinct First Nation communities, each with their own traditions, laws, spiritual beliefs, languages, art and history that is passed on from one generation to another. This cultural history dates back tens of thousands of years and demonstrates the perseverance, ingenuity and deep connection First Nations people have with each other and to the land.

Recognising the different values, practices and worldviews that define Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples supports health services and systems to be specifically tailored to their needs. This includes respecting cultural protocols and practices such as the separation of men’s and women’s business, kinship practices and the importance of the role of Elders.

2.Fostering mutual trust

Trusted relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with medical, allied health and primary care practitioners is highly effective in working toward change. First Nations people who trust their health care system will be better positioned to access services that benefit their overall health and wellbeing.

These trusted relationships foster culturally sensitive care, holistic approaches and equity-focused services, contributing to better health outcomes for First Nations People.

To develop this relationship, it is important to engage with health care professionals to ensure they are equipped with the right knowledge, skills and understanding to deliver a system that is culturally appropriate, trusting and alleviates known barriers.

By understanding the defining historical, cultural and social complexities of specific local or regional Indigenous contexts and with a genuine attempt to share power, these relationships will foster mutual trust. This approach is important in health services as it challenges the status quo and addresses well-known power imbalances that exist across many levels.

3. Trauma-informed engagement

Recognising the role that historical and other traumas play in First Nation communities and lives is a critical factor for respectful and safe engagement. Trauma-informed and culturally appropriate engagement provides a safe space for First Nations communities to share their needs and critically reflect on the current barriers they experience towards healthcare.

By allowing First Nations People to have a genuine say in the design and delivery of healthcare policies, programs and services that affect them, better health outcomes can be achieved. This allows them to drive their own desired aspirations and identify issues throughout the design of services to ensure the improved services reflect their needs. It also gives those people with lived experience the voice to build on the strong foundations that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have and their deep connection to family, community and cultures.

Through a trauma-informed and culturally appropriate environment, the individual, their choices and autonomy, their culture and their values are supported and respected.

Why trauma-informed care matters

Trauma-informed care is important as it promotes a culture of safety, empowerment and healing and considers the experiences of each individual and how trauma may impact their lives. By conducting engagement that reflects the trauma-informed principles of safety (emotional and physical), trust, choice, collaboration, empowerment and respect for diversity, genuine collaboration and change can occur.

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, families and individuals, organisations, community groups, services and agencies set about the many celebrations during NAIDOC Week 2024, the opportunities go beyond this time of celebration. We need to continue to meaningfully and genuinely engage First Nations communities in the development and application of the policies and programs that affect them.

At Phillips Group, our dedicated Health and Care Practice acknowledges the importance of employing trauma-informed and culturally appropriate principles when engaging with First Nation communities. Through extensive practice and expertise, our team can ensure your organisation is conducting meaningful engagement that considers the individual experiences, cultural differences and historical impacts which will not re-traumatise the person.

Connect with our Health and Care Practice GED, Rebecca Williams today for a conversation.