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Supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers in Australia to Lead Healthcare in their Communities

Advancing health equity by focusing on the health worker gap in First Nations communities is a core pillar of Johnson & Johnson Australia's Reconciliation Action Plan.
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In a just, equitable and reconciled Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children will have the same life chances and choices as non-Indigenous children, and the length and quality of a person’s life will not be determined by their racial background. Johnson & Johnson Australia embraced this vision outlined by Reconciliation Australia, an organization working to strengthen relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous peoples for the benefit of all Australians, when it launched its first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) in 2013. 

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Australia’s colonial history is characterized by devastating land dispossession, violence and racism. Over the last half-century, however, many significant steps towards reconciliation have been taken. Reconciliation Australia’s RAP framework provides organizations with a structured approach to sustainably and strategically take meaningful action to advance reconciliation. 

One of the four pillars of Johnson & Johnson Australia’s current and third RAP for the 2021-2023 period focuses on advancing health equity—encompassing a vision that extends to an Australia where health inequities are a thing of the past, and where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples live a life free of racism, oppression and injustice, with high levels of health, well-being and economic prosperity. This also aligns with Johnson & Johnson’s Our Race to Health Equity initiative, an enterprise-wide aspiration to help eradicate racial and social injustice as a public health threat by eliminating health inequities for people of color. 

“Aboriginal People for Aboriginal People” – Apunipima’s Baby One Program 

Despite Australia’s world-renowned health system, the Australian government’s 2020 Closing the Gap report states that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples carry a disease burden over 2.3 times compared to the non-Indigenous population. The report highlights gaps in a number of areas, including a child mortality rate for First Nations children that is twice the rate of non-Indigenous children. 

“Research clearly shows that having more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are health workers will lead to better health outcomes,” says Kris Ashpole, Johnson & Johnson Global Community Impact (GCI) Leader for Australia and New Zealand, and a lead implementer of the third RAP. “As part of the RAP process, we finetuned our community impact programming to focus on the health worker gap in First Nations communities.” 

The finetuning of GCI programming led to identifying Maternal and Child Health (MCH) as one of the key areas of focus and the development of an MCH training program with Apunipima Cape York Health Council, an Aboriginal community controlled health organization providing comprehensive primary healthcare to some of the most isolated communities in Australia. 

Apunipima’s Baby One program aims to directly address health issues experienced by mothers and babies and to support local people to be health workers in their communities. Led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers, the program works with Cape York families sharing health knowledge across the antenatal and infant period to encourage optimal health for the child, mother, family and community. 

“Training local people to be health workers is a key part of the program. It is not just important to have Aboriginal health workers to lead in the healthcare in their communities, it is essential,” says Debra Malthouse, CEO, Apunipima. 

The Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies in Australia has been supporting the Baby One program through product donations since 2016. The partnership, recently expanded with support from the Johnson & Johnson Foundation, aims to strengthen Apunipima's MCH workforce capabilities and increase their confidence to meet the identified needs of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and families in Cape York. 

“The health workers in the program have chosen to be in healthcare to look after their communities and their families,” says Ashpole. “This partnership supports the work that they're already doing, and empowers them to take it further.” 

The project includes building the capabilities of Apunipima’s community Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, upskilling the MCH workforce in the community to reinforce existing certifications, and supporting future career pathways in nursing, midwifery and other relevant fields. For example, the partnership has enabled Apunipima to provide professional training blocks for the community-based MCH health workers to leave their communities for a week and have the opportunity to learn about best evidence MCH care and to meet and network with colleagues from other communities. 

“Closing the gap is important because we want our people to live longer, healthy and happy lives,” adds Malthouse. “To be able to close the gap, we definitely need to have more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors, nurses, midwives and health workers because you need to have Aboriginal people for Aboriginal people.”