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Indigenous doctor of the year Benjamin Armstrong makes plea for more competition in future years

Jarred Cross -

For Melukerdee and Pinterrairer, Lia Pootah pathologist Dr Benjamin Armstrong, having First Nations people working in medicine and health isn't just about representation.

Last month, Dr Armstong was named Indigenous doctor of the year at the Australian Indigenous Doctors' Association's annual conference in Hobart.

Despite being hosted in his home state, it's been a long journey from his youth in the few-hundred person town of Nubeena on Tasmania's south-eastern coast.

Dr Armstong finished secondary school and college in Hobart before studying an health science undergrad in Launceston followed by time in Brisbane for what he told National Indigenous Times was a proper "introduction to pathology, and introduction to the big smoke".

He later graduated from medicine at the University of Wollongong and subsequent junior doctor and speialty training.

"Five years and six exams later, finally", Dr Armstrong was a specialist pathologist, now living and working in Sydney and fellow of The Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia with professional interests in sexually transmitted infections and blood-borne viruses.

Dr Armstrong was a member of the Commonwealth's multi- disciplinary working group helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through Australia's Indigenous community.

AIDA recognised the 38-year-old as Australia's first known Aboriginal clinical microbiologist.

"As much as it was a terrible time - the peak pandemic, that's one of the success stories, I think, is that many communities protected themselves (and) protected their Elders until we could get vaccines and drugs on board," he said.

He's also a member of RCPA's Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Māori Health & Workforce Steering Committee.

Dr Armstrong said working in policy is among what his proudest achievement.

Although he rarely sees a patient in his current role, his hope is to see more Indigenous doctors on the frontline.

He is one of only two First Nations pathologists in the country.

Dr Armstrong said this lack of representation can complicate cultural care levels in research, science and testing despite all good intentions.

"But that's never quite the same as having Indigenous researchers provide the research and the information in a way that's not only appreciative and takes care of the people who are being researched, but makes sure that it's actually providing helpful information that helps those people at the end as well," he said.

He said things are improving, but still "lagging behind".

In 2019, just over 500 of Australia's 118,000 medical practitioners identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, according to an AIDA 2021 report.

That's less than 0.5 per cent of the registered medical workforce.

Those numbers are increasing, but below parity with non-Indigenous Australians.

Dr Armstrong also pointed to trailing numbers of specialists and numbers of people entering studies progressing to entering the field.

"Aboriginal doctors and Indigenous doctors, broadly, including Torres Strait Islander and Maori doctors, we're all doing really good work to provide care to patients," he said.

"We're doing that to the same level, if not more, as all the other non-Indigenous doctors around Australasia. But then all of us are juggling extra things at the same time.

"I'm doing that policy work in my spare time. Other people are shaking up health systems in their spare time. We've got lots of things on the boil."

Cultural responsibilities, level of privilege, remote upbringings, lack of personal networks to follow and seek guidance, and misunderstandings within medicine are elements Dr Armstrong sees as creating barriers.

He pointed to resources provided by individual universities and available on AIDA's website for those looking to pursue careers in medicine.

"I would just love to see those numbers go up. All of us are doing so much to change the health systems in Australia," Dr Armstrong said.

At AIDA's awards, 22 Indigenous medical graduates were gifted hand-painted stethoscopes, and 19 Fellows framed stethoscopes handed in recognition of their achievement.

"It is vital that we celebrate and recognise the achievements of our Torres and Strait Islander doctors and continue to create a culturally safe environment where they can look around a room and know that we stand united," AIDA chief executive Donna Burns said.

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