Strengthening the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce is key to improving health outcomes for Indigenous people with chronic diseases, according to JCU Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, Dr Sean Taylor.
“We need to recruit more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professionals in different streams, so we have a good representation of health workers able to engage and communicate effectively with patients,” said Dr Taylor, Executive Director, Aboriginal Health Practitioner, in the Northern Territory Top End Health Service.
A descendant of the Dauareb nation, one of the eight tribes of Mer Island, in the eastern part of the Torres Strait, he was among the first cohort of students to graduate from an innovative JCU nursing degree course based on neighbouring Thursday Island, in 2005.
Having witnessed the “diabetes epidemic that swept through Torres Strait”, Dr Taylor spent several years working as a renal dialysis nurse, both in Cairns and Alice Springs, which has the largest haemodialysis unit in the Southern Hemisphere.
“Renal failure is a complication associated with diabetes and I wanted to see the end stage of that complication,” he said.
He then switched focus to primary health care, training health workers as a clinical educator with the Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia, based in Adelaide.
In 2008, Dr Taylor began actively contributing to diabetes research; project managing a University of Sydney study on antecedents of renal disease in children, before joining a University of South Australia and JCU collaborative project investigating how Indigenous health workers can help reduce average blood sugar levels in diabetes patients in the Cape and Torres region.
A keen desire to convert research findings into frontline practice prompted him to obtain a Doctor of Public Health (Research) degree from JCU in 2017.
“This doctoral experience gave me the fundamental knowledge and understanding of translating findings in fundamental research into clinical practice and meaningful health outcomes,” he said.He then hit the ground running as Principal Advisor for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health with the Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service, before last year joining the Top End Health Service, where he is also the executive lead for Aboriginal Health.
Dr Taylor is working hard to recruit and retain Aboriginal health professionals, including health practitioners, liaison officers, interpreters and healthcare workers, in rural and remote areas, where the majority of patients are Indigenous and many do not speak English as a first language.
“Aboriginal health professionals are crucial to overcome language barriers and encourage patients to actively engage in their healthcare plans. Patients need to understand why they are being asked to do things, otherwise it is not a priority for them,” he said.
He is currently investigating the deployment of community health coaches to tackle chronic disease prevention and management.
“We need to look at patients holistically, rather than just their health problems, and help them set achievable goals. Training laypeople to deliver health messages and look at ways to change unhealthy behaviour is cost-effective and already used in Africa and numerous other parts of the world,” he said.
Executive Director, Aboriginal Health Practitioner, in the Northern Territory Top End Health Service