Cancer care

The road to better Indigenous cancer care is paved with good intentions


Cancer treatment centres need to do more to translate goodwill into concrete actions to better meet the needs of Indigenous patients, new research suggests.

A survey of 58 public cancer treatment services found that while most had developed initiatives for Indigenous patients, these often did not translate into having actual culturally-specific services or Indigenous staff.

Encouragingly, while Indigenous patients represented a small minority of patients (5%), most of the centres surveyed had culturally-specific initiatives, such as making links with Indigenous health organisations in the community (74%).

However, while 69% of cancer treatment centres believed they had “made a dedicated effort to address the needs of Indigenous patients”, fewer reported that their centre had established programs and services for Indigenous patients (58%) or policies to guide dealing with Indigenous people (55%).

It was also concerning that only 31% of cancer treatment centres in metropolitan areas and 59% in regional areas had Indigenous staff, the study authors said.

This may reflect more the “goodwill and optimism of the respondents rather than on Indigenous-specific initiatives that are actually in place” write the authors of the study,  in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.

“This suggests that there may be a lag between positive intentions and actually having identified programs and policies in place,” write Emma Taylor, a research officer from the University of Western Australia’s Centre for Rural Health, and co-authors.

Most cancer centres believed they had already done enough to meet the needs of Indigenous patients, with less than half (47%) of centres planning to make further changes.

“[This] suggests that, without concerted effort, services may plateau or fail in their efforts to improve cancer outcomes for Indigenous patients,” the authors said.

They said the findings from the survey were useful by showing that most cancer services have a desire to improve their services for Indigenous patients, even if there are service gaps.

“Although many cancer treatment centres treat relatively few Indigenous patients, the majority of centres participating in this study indicated that they are attempting to meet the needs of their Indigenous patients.”

“However, this apparent goodwill must be matched with initiatives that actually make a positive difference.”

Leadership is a “critical first step” to improving hospital care for Indigenous Australians, and should be reflected through the development of concrete policies, procedures and outcome indicators, they added.

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