Racism is embedded in the health system and is causing almost two thirds of Indigenous Australians to avoid seeking medical services, Victorian research has found.
An online survey of 120 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults found 86% had at experienced racism at least once while accessing a mainstream Victorian health service, with 66% of incidents occurring during a consultation with a specialist doctor.
Fifty-four per cent reported experiencing racism every time they went to hospital and 62% per cent reported having avoided seeking health treatment due to racism, according to the survey by the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) and students from RMIT University in Melbourne.
Cancer screening and prevention was singled out by participants as a problem area, according to first-hand accounts captured in the survey.
One person described having never returned to the specialist for a colonoscopy “even though symptoms were worsening” while a woman described how she was told to “make sure you are clean down there” when requesting a Pap test.
Participants described incidents of negative racial stereotyping, such as health workers questioning their Aboriginality or making assumptions about their health status once it was declared.
Several described how health workers assumed a patient was drunk due to their Indigenous status.
Racism was reported by participants to be most frequently experienced from nurses (88%), GPs (74%) and specialists (66%).
The survey results have dire implications for the national goal to close the gap in Indigenous health, said VACCHO CEO Trevor Pearce.
“Our people are avoiding seeking treatment at high rates due to racism, and often leave hospital against medical advice due to feeling discrimination,” he said.
Mr Pearce said a review into racism in the mainstream health system conducted by an independent Aboriginal Health Commissioner was needed.
“The Aboriginal Community Controlled health sector can’t possibly provide every health service needed by our people, which is why when we access mainstream healthcare it’s important we don’t experience racism and other judgements from the professionals we are interacting with,” he said.