Thurru Pathway for Aspiring Indigenous Doctors

 Miroma Bunbilla Program provides an alternative pathway for Indigenous medical students.

From the Cessnock mines to fighting for Indigenous youth, GP Peter O’Mara’s incredible story will inspire indigenous students to seek a career in medicine.

Medical student Kieran Shipp was admitted through the Miroma Bunbilla Program.

The Chair of the RACGP Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Faculty, Professor O’Mara is Director of the University’s Thurru Indigenous Health Unit and a practicing GP in an Aboriginal community controlled health service.

The Thurru team visits regional and remote areas to speak with communities about the Joint Medical Program.

Professor O’Mara said that becoming a GP was not something he grew up believing was possible.

I always had a strong interest in science, but in my early years I believed in the stereotypical view that studying and practicing medicine was for other people – doctors’ children and wealthy families,” Professor O’Mara said.

After leaving Cessnock High School, I worked in the coal mines as a fitter machinist. I injured my back in an accident and I had to ask myself serious questions, including whether I could continue working in the mines.

I was watching the Ray Martin Show one day when I saw an interview with one of Australia’s first Aboriginal doctors Dr Louis Peachey. It sparked something in me and I thought to myself – why can’t that be me?

So I digested all the information I could. The first Monday after the show aired I took myself down to Newcastle Uni and scooped all the information available, I reckon I read every medicine brochure inside and out, front to back. From that point on there was no looking back, it has been an incredible journey.”

In Awabakal language meaning ‘permit… take care of’, Miroma Bunbilla is a week-long intensive selection process that gives aspiring doctors the chance to prove their passion, aptitude and suitability to commence a medical degree.

Darren Nolan, a lecturer in the University’s School of Medicine and Public Health and coordinator of Miroma Bunbilla, said the program was unique in Australia for its approach to selecting students to study Medicine.

Our program recognises that Indigenous students often come from remote places with reduced access to traditional educational opportunities. In addition to that, their cultural context can be very different to that of non-Indigenous students,” said Mr Nolan.

We reach out nationally to find students with great potential and give them strong support to demonstrate their drive and capability to become good doctors.”

Students are traditionally admitted to medical schools based on their Year 12 academic results and specific entrance exams. Evidence shows this method is not an accurate predictor of success for Indigenous students. It also unintentionally excludes many talented and committed candidates from studying Medicine.

A Wiradjuri man raised in the small township of Paxton in the Hunter Valley Region, Professor O’Mara thrives on the opportunity to pass on his wisdom and inspire the next generation of Indigenous healthcare workers.

I find teaching medical students incredibly rewarding and believe it is vital to provide support for Indigenous students to help them become the best doctors they can be.

We need more Indigenous doctors. As an Indigenous GP, I understand the life circumstances of Indigenous patients and how important it is to reconnect with country and family. If we can enhance the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healthcare workforce, including in general practice, we can take strong strides forward in ‘closing the gap’.

Communities have such a strong sense of pride in our Indigenous doctors. We have made progress but there is so much more to be done in improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health outcomes.

My message to Indigenous people is that if you are considering studying medicine, then give it a red hot go and see if it suits you. If not, no problem, but you might surprise yourself and thrive in ways you never thought possible.”

Joint Medical Program

Thurru is a partnership between the University of Newcastle and the University of New England. Aspiring medical students, including school leavers, undergraduates and mature-age students, are currently submitting applications to participate in the program in the first week of December.

A cohort of about 45 hopeful students will work with mentors to complete a number of tasks over the course of the week. Their written work and participation in problem-based and group-based learning will be assessed and a group of 17 will be selected to study in the Joint Medical Program next year.

University of Newcastle Pro Vice-Chancellor – Indigenous Strategy and Leadership, Mr Nathan Towney, said that working with Indigenous communities is a high priority for the University and that it is committed to widening participation and promoting diversity and increasing success for all.

We are proud of our record in Indigenous higher education, innovation and engagement. The University of Newcastle, through innovative pathway programs and strong on-campus support, has now graduated over 100 Indigenous doctors,” said Mr Towney.

This year we will graduate 17 new Indigenous doctors and take in another 17 through the Miroma Bunbilla program.”

Applications for this year’s Miroma Bunbilla program are now open and will close on 31 October. The five-day program will be held from 30 November to 4 December and will be conducted online, with activities delivered via Zoom. Participants will have the opportunity to participate in the program from a nominated university facility or their home:

Further information on the Joint Medical Program and the application form are available at the University of Newcastle website.

Raise the Age

Professor O’Mara is also continuing the fight on issues of great significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Every day is a new opportunity to advocate and push for positive change in communities across Australia. I am part of the national campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Australia and it’s something that I am really passionate about,” Professor O’Mara said.

Let this sink in – right now children as young as 10 years old can be arrested, thrown in a police cell and then incarcerated in prison-like settings. It’s just unacceptable and as Chair of the RACGP Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Faculty I am not going to take a backwards step in getting the age raised to 14.

We know that incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is disproportionate to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population and much higher when compared with the non-Indigenous population. This has to change and we have not got a moment to lose.

Lifelong health and wellbeing begins in childhood and the sustained criminalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children will create a cycle of vulnerability and engagement with the justice system for generations to come.

As a GP I’m pushing for therapeutic alternatives that support prevention and early intervention activities that are culturally safe.

We also call for a strong investment in tackling the social determinants of health. Throwing children in prison-like conditions will set these people on a destructive life course and get us absolutely nowhere.”

The national Raise the Age campaign has been established to lobby all state, territory and Commonwealth governments to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Australia to 14.

This issue disproportionately affects Aboriginal and Torres Islander children, who made up more than 60% of the 600 children aged 10 to 13 in detention from 2018-19.

More information is available at www.raisetheage.org.au