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08 March 2021

RESEARCHING women such as James Cook University’s GP training graduate and Fulbright Scholarship recipient Dr Allison Hempenstall, have changed the way patients receive treatment.

Her pioneering study into the way skin infections are treated in the Torres Strait is making inroads for better Indigenous health outcomes.

Dr Hempenstall, a member of the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, and an Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine Fellow, knows too well that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are three-times more likely to be hospitalised for cellulitis treatment than non-Indigenous Australians, and she is working hard to turn around the statistic.

The former University of Melbourne Medical graduate has undertaken a 12-month observational study of 298 cellulitis patients from 18 islands across the Torres Strait where she was the principal investigator of the Emergency Medicine Foundation, and Menzies HOT North-funded `Cellulitis Outpatient Antibiotics Study in the Torres' (COAST).

Dr Hempenstall is a specialist in rural and remote medicine and lives on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, providing primary and emergency medical care to her community. Her research focuses on tropical infectious diseases and she advocates for the building of local research capacity within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Cellulitis is an infection caused when bacteria enters the skin through an ulcer, cut or a scratch or an insect bite, however, it can also occur without visible damage to the skin. It affects people of all ages and is very common in tropical environments.

These patients with skin conditions such as cellulitis, are often admitted to the Thursday Island Hospital, involving a medical retrieval flight, followed by an extended absence from their own communities.

“In 2017, cellulitis was the number one cause of preventable hospitalisations on Thursday Island,” Dr Hempenstall said.

“It's a huge burden on our local health service for a disease that elsewhere in Australia is predominantly managed in the home and in the community.”

But thanks to Dr Hempenstall’s research, patients in remote communities with cellulitis are now being safely treated at home, reducing both patient stress levels and costly hospital admissions.

Dr Hempenstall said the study included listening to the needs of her patients in order to manage the complex health needs of Torres Strait Islander communities.

Her important work was recognised through funding which has allowed the Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service to employ its first-ever Indigenous research officer, Pelista Pilot, who played an integral role in compiling the study data.

 “As a non-Indigenous person, I continue to deeply learn from the Torres Strait Islander community that I have been so privileged to live alongside,” Dr Hempenstall said.

“It is crucial that First Nations health research involves First Nations communities, respecting their culture and research priorities.

 “We hope that this study will demonstrate to clinicians on the ground that we don't need to admit patients to hospitals; that they can be safely treated in the community and that they actually prefer to be managed in the community,” Dr Hempenstall said.

“Hopefully, by reducing hospital admissions, we are able to redirect those funds to much needed other areas of health care like diabetes, kidney disease and obesity.”

Dr Hempenstall first visited Thursday Island as a junior doctor in 2016 and returned as a first-year registrar in January 2018 before completing her primary care training in 2020.

She said she relished the challenge of working across the remote Torres Strait Islands, dividing her time between the hospital and the primary healthcare centres on outer islands.

The Fellow of the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine has almost completed her Masters of Public Health with Harvard University as the 2020 Queensland Fulbright Scholar.

After completing her Masters, she said she plans to return to the Torres Strait region to continue to strengthen public health systems – in partnership with Torres Strait Islander community.

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