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Building respectful relationships and partnerships

Let's explore the importance of developing respectful partnerships within the health care context of Australia's First Peoples.

When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples aren’t included in decision making, the results are poor and precious resources are usually wasted in the process.

An understanding of culture, effective communication and a commitment to working in partnership is key to your success in working with First Peoples. Lilla Watson (N.D.), Aboriginal elder, activist and educator once wisely said: ‘If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.’

Research shows Indigenous clients in Australia are a third less likely to receive appropriate medical care across all conditions, compared to non-Indigenous patients (Paradies, Harris & Anderson, 2008). Ensuring access to culturally and clinically safe healthcare must be our focus.

A smiling doctor bends down to be at eye level with her client in a wheelchair © Shutterstock

‘Access’ does not just refer to physical access

It also includes:

  • providing care and services that are culturally safe, where clients and families are free from discrimination and judgement
  • affordable health care and services
  • making available health information that is both culturally responsive and easily understood.

What else can you and your team do to make a difference?

Small steps can make big inroads toward change. For example, it’s important to remember First Peoples are more likely to access health services where service providers:

  • communicate respectfully
  • have an understanding of First Peoples’ culture
  • take time to build good relationships with First Peoples, and
  • include Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander health workers as part of the healthcare team (Durey, Thompson & Wood 2011; Shahid, Finn & Thompson, 2009; Taylor et al., 2009).

In the next few steps we focus on supporting you to embrace each of these strategies.

Your task

What strategies does your workplace implement to support culturally safe communication and better access to health services? Also share ideas of what you think could work well. Use the comments link further below to post your responses.


Durey, A., Thompson., S.C. (2012) Reducing the health disparities of Indigenous Australians: time to change focus, BMC Health Services Research, vol.12, p.151.

Paradise, Y., Harris, R. & Anderson, I. (2008). The impact of Racism on Indigenous Health in Australia and Aotearoa: Towards a Research Agenda. Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health. Discussion Paper Series: No. 4

Shahid, S., Finn, L. & Thompson, S.C. (2009) Barriers to participation of Aboriginal people in cancer care: communication in the hospital setting, Medical Journal of Australia, Vol. 190, pp. 574-579.

Taylor, K., Thompson, S., Smith, J., Dimer, L., Ali, M. & Wood, M. (2009). Exploring the impact of an Aboriginal health worker on hospitalised Aboriginal experiences: lessons from cardiology, Australian Health Review, 33 (4), 549-557

Watson, L. (ND). Lilla: International Women’s Network.

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Safer Healthcare for Australia's First Peoples

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