Addressing uncomfortable issues: the role of White health professionals in Aboriginal health

11 Oct 2012

This research investigated the role of White health professionals in addressing Aboriginal health in South Australia. 

Set within the discipline of nutrition and dietetics and the area of obesity prevention, it explored the practice of White health professionals from the point of view of Aboriginal and White workers.

This research, currently in the form of an unpublished Doctor of Philosophy thesis, arose from practice dilemmas the author experienced as a dietitian working in rural and remote South Australia.

The setting for this research was the eat well be active Community Programs, a community-based, childhood obesity prevention program in South Australia. In order to conduct ethical research, the author worked closely with Aboriginal community members and workers, through building and maintaining relationships and activities of reciprocity.

This research is positioned in a social constructionist epistemology and uses a critical theoretical approach. Critical social research and reflexivity are the methodological approaches. The kept a reflexive journal and conducted 41 semi-structured interviews with White health professionals and Aboriginal health workers and one focus group with White health professionals; all of which formed the data for this research.

This research identified that there are a number of elements to the practice of White health professionals that make it ideal when they are working with Aboriginal communities. However, such ideal practice does not always occur and this research sought to identify why. The organisation, profession and individual were identified as systems within the wider system of Aboriginal health.

Within these systems, the author identified structures (rules and resources) that either constrain or enable the practice of White health professionals with Aboriginal people. While many White health professionals focussed on external factors that constrained their practice, this thesis identifies the role of individuals in creating and maintaining barriers and enablers, thus highlighting their agency. It was also identified that White health professionals progress through a number of stages in their work in Aboriginal health, from not knowing how, to being scared, to finding it too hard and ultimately being able to practice regardless of barriers.

In summary, this research identified that moving forward in Aboriginal health requires White health professionals to look at themselves, which generally requires them to address uncomfortable issues.

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