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Written By

Hannah Gray


College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

3 December 2021

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The bravery to pursue her passion

Before JCU Student Joanne Kaczmarek began studying medicine, she was a JCU Commerce alumni who worked at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra. However, she found her work unfulfilling. So, with the support of her family and a desire for a career with impact, Joanne moved to Townsville to find a new passion. This is her story.

When I moved my family back to Townsville, I started a sabbatical to figure out what I really wanted to do and the impact that I wanted to have in the world. Becoming a doctor wasn’t on my radar at first, but over time I realised that I’ve always had a keen interest in health — I read articles and reports for fun! Also, I’ve always been concerned about the health gap and there is an unmet need for Indigenous doctors.

Receiving encouragement from trusted family, friends, and mentors, as well as reflecting on my own exposures to and experiences with the health system (both good and bad), gave me the final push towards a new career in medicine. In 2017, I completed a Diploma of Higher Education (Health) to acquire a few prerequisites, applied to JCU Medicine later that year, and the rest is now history.

Was it intimidating to completely switch career paths and return to study after 10 years in commerce?

In short, yes! I had worked so hard to cultivate my skill set for my previous career and, to be honest, it was hard to let go of what I had built and start all over again. At first, it felt like I was taking a big step down and backwards because I went from having expertise in the workplace to being a complete novice and student again.

That was a hard adjustment to make at first, but I’m a big believer in harnessing your passions and doing more of what makes you happy. Studying medicine is hard, but I do enjoy it. And being involved in patient care, even as a student, is so rewarding. I think I made the right decision!

Better than taking the bus

Joanne with her work commute on Thursday Island

An experience like no other

How is studying different to when you first did it?

Other than the major difference in technology as well as the Uni Bar no longer being the focal point of my university experience, the impact that studying has had on my personal life is vastly different.

My daughter, Ally, and husband, Ryan, have had to make sacrifices alongside me because not only does studying require a significant investment of my time, it also means that to make it work I have to forego an income. It would be hard for me to study medicine without scholarships and I especially want to thank the Wood Family for helping me to stay the course.

I’ve also learned this time around that it’s okay to use the supports that are available at JCU. That can mean asking questions at the Student Centre, getting assignment help at the library, applying for scholarships, or having a yarn with the staff at the Indigenous Education and Research Centre (IERC). I would encourage all students to see what help is available to them and to use it when needed — you don’t have to go it alone!

What has been the highlight of your experience with JCU Medicine?

The most valuable part of my study so far has been the placements. On placements, you’re connected in a very real way to the end goal of becoming a doctor, and you get to see first-hand what the job is really like.

The people and patients in our region are overwhelmingly kind and generous, and are so willing to share their stories and allow students to be involved in their care.

The opportunity to meet and interact with patients on placements and to see real-life examples of the conditions we study in books not only enriches the learning, but does so much more to develop our skills than study can do alone.

At the end of my second year, I was lucky enough to do a month-long placement at the Thursday Island Hospital in the Torres Strait. I grew up on Badu Island nearby, so it was a thrill for me to be able to go back ‘home’ as a doctor in training.

There’s a unique combination of Indigenous and tropical medicine in the Torres Strait, and because it is located so close to Papua New Guinea, you also see cases that you wouldn’t normally see elsewhere in Australia, such as tuberculosis and leprosy.

There are not many places you get to catch a helicopter to work but the Torres Strait is one. Spotting turtles, dugongs, sharks, and crocs on the way to clinics on the outer islands was an experience like no other!

Joanne with her mother and daughter on Thursday Island
Joanne Kaczmarek with the RACGP Award
Left: Joanne Kaczmarek with her mother and daughter on Thursday Island. Right: Joanne Kaczmarek with the RACGP Award.

The root of the problem

What would you say are some of the reasons why the gap in health outcomes exists and is being perpetuated?

I am by no means an expert, but I think the root cause of the health gap is the poor treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people throughout the process of colonisation, coupled with discriminatory policies and legislation of successive Australian governments. There’s no palatable way to say that.

The gap persists because we, as a society, tolerate third-world living conditions and health conditions in a first-world country — for some of our citizens. I think it’s that simple.

What would you say National Close the Gap Day is about? What does closing the gap look like practically?

The purpose of National Close the Gap Day, as I understand it, is to bring attention to the health inequalities that lead to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples dying, on average, more than 10 years younger than other Australians.

Practical efforts to close the gap that have been widely implemented include increasing cultural awareness and cultural competency in health professionals. These are good things to do and they are great for creating safer and more welcoming environments for Indigenous people who are engaging in our health services.

However, they do little to address the underlying problems.

“We know that socioeconomic inequalities lead to health inequalities. So, to achieve health equality, we really need to address the social determinants of health.”

JCU Student Joanne Kaczmarek

These social factors include appropriate housing, a good education, employment opportunities, safe communities, decent local infrastructure and access to good healthcare services. These all influence people’s health and a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work because no two communities are alike. The social determinants of a person’s health may be many and varied and are unique to the individual.

I think the key here is addressing poverty. We are a wealthy nation, why should anyone in this country live in poverty?

It’s easy for us to blame an individual for their circumstances, but for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — particularly those living in rural and remote communities — the socioeconomic conditions (factors which are largely out of their control) set them up to have poorer health than people living in towns and cities.

Looking to the future

Do you think that inspiring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to pursue medicine as a career can contribute to closing the gap?

Absolutely! I think we need more Indigenous doctors to advocate for Indigenous peoples, to challenge the stereotypes that still persist, and to positively reframe the Indigenous health narrative.

When we talk about Indigenous health, we really only talk about Indigenous ill-health. I think we need to decolonise medicine and look at Indigenous health through a new lens.

“I believe that having more Indigenous doctors is one way to spark new thought and inspire research that can challenge false beliefs and biases, and improve the health of all Australians.”

JCU Student Joanne Kaczmarek

But, this is only a small part of the solution. We need a social determinants of health approach to fix health disadvantage, and since we (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples) make up just 3 per cent of the Australian population, we can’t do this alone.

We need non-Indigenous people to be outraged by the health gap and the health disadvantages that persist in our country and we need them to voice these opinions. If we rally together around this, we can make a difference.

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