Improving men's health in rural North Queensland

From general check-ups to mental health issues and even serious illness, men are less likely than women to seek health care. Men’s Health Week, running from June 10 to 16, seeks to change that by encouraging boys and men to see their GP.

In rural North Queensland, the issues that men face are compounded among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Not only is this population, their men especially, reluctant to seek healthcare, but their health issues are more severe.

JCU GP Trainer Dr Bharat Gadhvi, who also works in rural outreach centres in Cape York, confronts the issues in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health on a regular basis.

“Seeing diabetics that are five and seeing people with Chlamydia as young as 12, you can’t help but feel a little bit taken aback and disappointed,” Bharat said.

“It puts into context the scale of what you’re dealing with and we’re seeing people here with diabetes and kidney failure as young as 30, 40 years old.

“You would not see that in the non-Indigenous population. I’ve never seen a type two diabetic who is 10 years old in a non-Indigenous population, yet here in the Cape we’ve got kids as young as that.”

It’s a dire outcome, and Bharat says, “You almost know that they’re not going to have a full and healthy life expectancy if you’ve got illness at that age.”

A man in a red shirt is having a female health practitioner listen to his heart with a stethoscope.

While there are massive issues around the health of these populations, Bharat believes hope lies in education, an area he’s contributed to in Gordonvale’s Djarragun College.

“They have a health project that I’ve been involved in for a year or two, and that’s a lot around education, creating good habits, talking about safe sex and healthy lifestyles, exercise and a good diet,” Bharat said.

“If you have bad habits as a teenager they’ll follow you into adulthood and then you need a very big change to reduce your risk of having some of these illnesses that are related to poor lifestyle.

“Cultivating those habits of healthy eating, regular activity, practicing safe sex, all that kind of stuff, in the teenage years will more likely lead to adults who then practice the same lessons in their own life.”

In education, effective communication is critical. Strategies in this area, developed by experienced health professionals are already paying dividends.

“Sometimes having somebody who relates to them more helps. For example a female doctor talking to a 14 year old boy about STIs, that’s a lot harder than if you’ve got somebody who they can identify with who is not giving them a lecture, but is at their own level talking in a simple language,” he said.

Similarly, recognising cultural divides in communication is key to ensuring potential patients have every chance to become the healthy generation of tomorrow.

“Using Indigenous health workers makes a difference because they can relate to people on a level that non-Indigenous doctors from a medical background find more challenging,” the doctor said.

The most important aspects of quality education are patience and sympathy in a challenging, often stressful situation.

“A lot of it is just patience and time, taking the non-judgemental approach. Not indicating any sort of judgement about practices,” Bharat said.

“Some things are very different culturally and you’ve got to be sympathetic to that.”

Bharat meeting with three Indigenous Australian patients.

Bharat says education is a key factor in improving the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in rural Australia.

In Men’s Health Week, Bharat says he’ll likely have more admissions for preventative health checks, something he welcomes, and which illustrates the positive difference yearly events make.

“At least for a week or a month in a year, it brings more attention and makes men think about their health more and go and access a preventative health check,” he said.

“Rather than waiting for symptoms to develop and then you’ve sort of missed the boat, it encourages people to, if they’re depressed or have mental health issues to seek some sort of help.

“If they’ve got bowel or urinary symptoms to go and get it checked out.

“If they’re worried about their overall health, cardiovascular disease, just general fitness, weight gain and obesity, it brings it to public attention and then other people may be encouraging men to go and get themselves checked out.”

Men’s Health Week is the perfect time to go and get yourself checked out at your GP.

If you’re concerned about your mental health, contact Beyond Blue.

If you would like to make a difference to the health of individuals and entire communities, consider JCU Medicine.