Identifying the gaps in Indigenous health knowledge

15 Nov 2016
Member Story

AIDA met with Rural Medicine Australia 2016 Bursary recipient Miss Danielle Dries to find out what inspired her to study medicine. “I think that my dad might have influenced me a bit. When I was doing physiotherapy, he sent me an email telling me that medical school had started in Canberra and that he thought it was something that I could do,”
said Danielle.

Initially planning to become an architect, Danielle became fascinated by physiotherapy after she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and ended up having physiotherapy for 10 months. “I thought it was a pretty cool profession,” said Danielle who later went on to become a physiotherapist herself. Starting her degree at 17, it took her seven years to complete due to personal loss and struggles. “I lost a couple of family members including my dad during this time. I also had a couple of knee surgeries. So I took some time off to spend with my family and did some traveling with my mum.”

After finishing her physiotherapy degree in 2011, Danielle worked for a year in Sydney and realised how much she loves the county. “I think Australia is just beautiful, and I wanted to work in rural and remote communities because of my amazing rural placements in physio and awareness of the higher rates of chronic disease in those areas. Unfortunately, there weren’t many jobs for physiotherapists there.”

Danielle did an elective in Indigenous Health during her undergraduate degree, and this emphasised the extent of the health issues, as well as a greater understanding of health difficulties in her own family.
“When I was younger, I acknowledged that I was Aboriginal, but I didn’t realise that I was any different, and had no understanding of the health disparities.”

With her dad working in the Royal Australian Air Force, Danielle lived in the United States when she was young. Her family came back to Canberra where Danielle finished high school. “I think living overseas made me a bit distant from my family culture and I didn’t really understand what it meant to be Aboriginal. It’s amazing when you’re kids, you don’t really recognise that you’re different from anyone else, but I think moving around and travelling a lot when I was little really gave me a broad understanding of different cultures and diversity.”

We asked Danielle if she plans to somehow combine her career in physiotherapy with a career in medicine. “I love being a physiotherapist. I think it’s a great profession and I think having an allied health background gives me another perspective working in health, as well as being a patient so many times.”

Danielle was recently announced as a Bursary recipient at the awards dinner for the annual Rural Medicine Australia conference. “It was amazing! Receiving an award and standing next to other recipients and doctors and listening to all the great things they have done, is just incredible. It really was an honour to stand up there with them. It felt really good to be acknowledged for so many things that I have worked hard on over that last couple of years. It’s really inspiring and motivating. Receiving the Bursary which allows me to continue research in something that I am so passionate about, is just amazing.”

Danielle will be doing her research on top of her internship for the first six months of next year. Her research will look at the Indigenous health curriculum across every health degree in Australia to see if an Indigenous health curriculum is part of the course – either embedded or taught as an elective, how many hours, if it is compulsory, and whether it is taught by an Indigenous person, among other things. “I really want to identify where the gaps are. That’s the driving force behind the whole project. As an example, when I did my physiotherapy degree, I was the only one that graduated with knowledge of Indigenous health because I was the only one that did the elective. The Department of Health also released their curriculum framework in February last year, so this research is very much on topic.”

Danielle has already achieved a lot: she’s a Close the Gap Ambassador; she has participated and spoken at several health forums, webinars and conferences; she has been a representative on various committees and a Senate hearing; undertaken many rural and remote placements; and she is the recipient of the International Women’s Day Award and the 2014 Allied Health Inspiration Awards.

It’s impressive how Danielle has managed so much while studying to become a doctor. She just passed her final exams earlier this month and will graduate on 14 December 2016.

“I have just had a really good balance between studying and the extra things that I want to do in life. A lot of people think studying medicine is just about reading a lot of books and studying hard, but medicine is so much more than just what you learn in books. There is so much benefit from going to conferences, meeting other students, talking to doctors and other allied health professionals – all of these people who have been there and done it before us. I think there is so much value in getting out there and talking to people. I find it so much easier to learn from people by talking and by doing. You can’t learn everything from a book. You actually have to get out there and see the patients. My experiences to date has given me a lot of confidence, along with skills in leadership and communication, and those are all really important things in medicine. In the last couple of years, I have learned a lot on the ward by talking to patients. That’s really valuable. You also learn a lot from students at other universities when you meet at conferences.”

“I have done a couple of high-school visits and talked to Indigenous youth about Indigenous health and studying medicine. Those are the things that really stand out to me. I feel like I’m trying to create a better place for the people that are following behind me, and that they are going to be the ones making the big changes. I love seeing the younger students and the things that they are achieving.”

We asked Danielle if there is a particular person or organisation that she looks up to for the work they do within the area of Indigenous health. “Yes, there are many. I joined AIDA in my first year of medicine, not having been to many conferences before. I first went to the Leaders in Indigenous Medical Education conference and then the AIDA conference in 2013. They were the most incredible experiences of my life. It was probably the first time that I really felt that I belonged. I remember through high-school and college, how I never quite felt black enough to be with the Aboriginal kids or white enough to be with the non-Indigenous kids. And when I got into medicine I felt that I only got in because I was Aboriginal. Many people assured me that this was not the case and we do a lot of harm to ourselves by thinking that way. I don’t think I would have completed medicine if I hadn’t gone to those conferences in my first year and met the people I met.”

“I was also lucky enough to join Indigenous Allied Health Australia in my first year of medicine, and they have also been really supportive. I later found out that my cousin is the CEO of the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives. So I am lucky to have links to all three organisations.”

Danielle will be interning in Canberra next year but ultimately wants to work in the bush. “I want to work rural and remote. That is my goal. I love the country.”

We wish to congratulate Danielle on passing her final exams, and we look forward to celebrate her graduation at the AIDA Conference in 2017.

15 Nov 2016