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Working in Aboriginal health—we’re like woodpeckers. As long as we keep pecking, we’ll make a difference

Rachael Knowles -

The Quality Assurance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Medical Services (QAAMS) national program is celebrating a 20-year commitment to meeting the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living with type 2 diabetes.

The organisation is marking the occasion with a two-day training workshop at the Adelaide Convention Centre in South Australia on the 8th and 9th of May.

QAAMS National Leader, Christopher O'Brien, is a proud Yorta Yorta man and a third generation descendent from William Cooperâ€"famous for arranging the Day of Mourning in 1938, which paved the way for NAIDOC, the 1967 referendum and the beginning of the first Aboriginal organisation, the Australian Aborigines Advancement League (1932).

With activism in his blood, O'Brien joined QAAMS in 2006 as a machine operator, and within a year was the deputy leader. In 2008, he became the leader for NSW and the ACT, two years later taking on his current role as national leader.

"It's been absolutely inspirational and enjoyable. After 13 years, I consider the QAAMS management team family," Mr O'Brien said.

"I just feel that it is a great program and struggle to understand why every Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service in Australia (ACCHS) are not registered with our program."

"This is the unique point-of-care, the only diagnostic device for type 2 diabetes supported by the Department of Human Services Medicare Program."

QAAMS started in 1999 with the intention of meeting the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living with type 2 diabetes.

First Nations people have a risk of diabetes two to three times higher than non-First Nations people. This rate increases in regional, rural and isolated areas communities.

The comorbidities associated with type two diabetes include coronary heart disease, chronic kidney disease and peripheral vascular disease.

Mr O'Brien said many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are screened meet the criteria for type 2 diabetesâ€"due to dispositioning from colonisation.

"We do have that reality. [That's why] we need these opportunities to get our people screened."

QAAMS also offers a range of training for ACCHSs nationwide.

"Ideally face-to-face is the training we want. In our 20th anniversary training workshop we are training face-to-face regarding blood (HbA1c) and urine (ACR) testing."

"We have a training co-ordinator who can get on the phone and speak with participants whilst they undergo training, we have training online so people can learn at their own pace, as well as a helpline."

Mr O'Brien cannot speak higher of QAAMS and the work it does for First Nations people.

"I've worked in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health for over 20 years, and this program by far outweighs all of my experiences and encounters."

"The analogy I use for working in Aboriginal health is the woodpecker. Improving Aboriginal holistic health is like pecking away continually, but as long as we keep pecking, we will make a difference and impact in the end. That's why I try to get involved in as many spaces as I possibly can, to help our people."

"I am empowered and I am inspired here. Working with non-Aboriginal people in an Aboriginal space can be challenging, but they are family."

"If you are with the right people, who are genuinely fighting for the cause, like yourself, then they can join you on your journey and you can bring them along."

Mr O'Brien hopes that QAAMS can inspire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be empowered and to take charge of their health.

"I hope they would go for screening, so if they do have type 2 diabetes they can start to look at managing and monitoring."

"I just think that is it important to combat chronic conditions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander holistic health [particularly] in regional, rural and isolated areas. We try to inject the program and reach out."

"We are so appreciative to have such a unique and innovative program available to the community because it enables us to diagnose, monitor, manage and hopefully reverse type 2 diabetes."

By Rachael Knowles

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