Aboriginal Health at St Vincent’s

Aboriginal Health at St Vincent’s


July 2017

St Vincent’s has built a decades-long commitment to improving health outcomes for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and is regarded as a leader in Aboriginal healthcare and research in a hospital setting.

In 2016, St Vincent’s introduced a new Aboriginal Health Unit, which brings together the Aboriginal Hospital Liaison Officer (AHLO) program, and quality improvement, cultural awareness, training, and cadetships.

The formation of the team reflects community needs but also the success of our AHLO program, which was Victoria’s first when it was founded in 1982.


‘We want to build on the great work that’s already happening and help it grow. We can draw on the depth of experience at St Vincent’s, what we’ve learned and how it has contributed to a better experience and outcome for our Aboriginal patients,’ says Toni Mason, Manager of the new Aboriginal Health Unit.

‘Many Aboriginal people don’t go to hospitals for fear of judgment, that they’ll be treated differently for not behaving in a certain way or that they’re sick because they’ve lived a certain lifestyle,’ Toni says.

‘It leads to situations where, for example, Aboriginal people are not engaging in cancer screening processes so we see them at a much later stage – you can be giving them a diagnosis and talking about palliative care in the same sentence.

‘The AHLOs have a deep understanding of community and cultural needs. They ensure that a person’s social and emotional wellbeing is considered.

‘Our AHLOs are very visible, they’re always on the wards and talking to people, they’re very friendly and approachable. That is so important for our patients but it has been just as valuable for our non-Aboriginal staff.

‘The AHLOs don’t work in isolation but very much alongside the treating team. It increases understanding and creates an environment where Aboriginal health is everyone’s business, which has laid the foundations for new projects and research in cardiac and cancer care.

‘With the Aboriginal Health Unit we can build on those strong foundations and become more strategic and sustainable – that will help us have an even larger positive impact on the health of Aboriginal patients here and at other hospitals.’

Improving Aboriginal Patient Care

As part of the ‘Koolin Balit Aboriginal health strategy’ initiated by the Victorian government, St Vincent’s has introduced a sustainable Aboriginal Health Care Coordinator (AHCC) role across all Health Independence Program (HIP) services at SVHM and North Richmond Community Health (NRCH).

The aim of the AHCC is to strengthen the cultural sensitivity of HIP services and to increase the number of Aboriginal clients successfully engaging with and completing their episodes of care. HIP have achieved this through the recruitment of an Aboriginal identified health professional with skills and knowledge in the areas of mainstream health and community services.

In the first 12 months of the AHCC role the average length of HIP episodes for Aboriginal clients improved 48% from 104 to 154 days. Increased engagement with health services and involvement in the community is a key pillar of the Koolin Balit project.

Consumer feedback from Aboriginal clients has demonstrated that this creative and individual approach has dramatically changed health and welfare outcomes and perceptions for Aboriginal clients involved with HIP.

St Vincent’s Aboriginal Cardiac Lighthouse Project

The recently completed St Vincent’s Aboriginal Cardiac Lighthouse Project was conducted to improve how St Vincent’s delivers care to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients with cardiac disease by utilising a toolkit developed by the National Heart Foundation.

The project was led by a project team consisting of the Coordinator of Aboriginal Projects, Ash Gupta, Senior Cardiac Nurse, Karen Daws, and Aboriginal Cultural Consultant, Shawana Andrews and was governed by a local steering committee featuring executive, medical, nursing management and Aboriginal community representation.

The project successfully identified a number of opportunities for improvement. Though they are highly inter-related, improvements could be broadly categorised into cultural safety improvements, staff training and systems of care.

Some key achievements from the project include:

  • The development of clinical guidelines for optimal clinical care on the cardiac wards
  • The development of clerical guidelines to support the identification and interaction of booking staff with Aboriginal patients
  • The provision of cultural safety training to staff from an array of backgrounds including medical, nursing, clerical and allied health
  • The development and presentation of an innovative “Yarning module” to facilitate clinically embedded, culturally responsive engagement and communication at the bedside
  • The inclusion of Aboriginal status on key patient lists for staff
  • The placement of Aboriginal art in areas of need to support culturally safe environments
  • The utilisation of Aboriginal art in the active recovery of patients in the Coronary Care Unit
  • The provision of welcome packs and access to vital material aid for Aboriginal patients in the Coronary Care Unit

The project identified a number of future goals and recommendations which are currently being explored through the continued operation of the Aboriginal Cardiac Care Pathways committee, led by Karen Daws.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment

SVHM, as part of SVHA joined the Prime Minister and Cabinet Employment Parity Initiative, which aims to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment in the health sector to 3% by 2020.

To help achieve this, St Vincent's has developed an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Strategy for 2016-2018 with the aim to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment to 1% by the end of this period.

Alongside this strategy, KPIs have been set at St Vincent's executive level in the area of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment, projects and cultural safety training. This demonstrates St Vincent's ongoing commitment to leadership in this initiative from our CEO and senior leadership group.

St Vincent’s has had a number of successes in the Aboriginal Employment space over the last year. We have continued the Aboriginal Nursing Cadetship Program that was started in 2012 and have successfully supported 5 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses through to completion of their nursing degrees and into Graduate positions.

The Aboriginal Graduate Nursing Program, that was piloted in 2014 has seen 3 Aboriginal Students complete their graduate year and has successfully recruited 3 Aboriginal nurses for the 2017 graduate program.

St Vincent's has also employed an additional 12 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff through the new HR & Indigenous Program Specialist role, the Aboriginal Health Unit and Koolin Balit Training Grants.