• Belinda Bolton (Left) - May Penny (right). (NITV News/Craig Quartermaine)Source: NITV News/Craig Quartermaine
Aboriginal Medical services are some of the most essential service providers in rural Australia because it’s not just the isolation that magnifies the overwhelming health statistics placing Indigenous Australians at the top of almost every category for poor health outcomes.
Craig Quartermaine

The Point
26 Apr 2017 - 5:20 PM  UPDATED 26 Apr 2017 - 5:20 PM

The Great Southern in Western Australia is the home of the Noongar people it’s also the most populated area of the state with major city centres like Albany, Bunbury, and Esperance outside of the capital Perth. Katanning is right in the heart of Noongar country, the town is apparently booming thanks to the influx of funding from the Royalties for Regions initiative by the State Government.

Unfortunately the health specialists are clustered in places like Bunbury and Albany on the coast, more than three hours away. Not surprisingly people inland feel forgotten.

Now a core group of Noongar people with expertise in health and community welfare are gearing up to try and change that by gaining approval and funding for an Aboriginal Medical Service in the town of Katanning.

Deborah Woods is a Noongar originally from Katanning but now runs the Geraldton Aboriginal Medical Service for Yamaji people of that area but has returned home to help form a board for the first AMS of the Great Southern .

When asked why she has comeback to help Ms Woods said: "Noongar people on average of dying younger; to the point we are losing 38 to 40-year-old Noongar men, young fathers with five and six little children and they are leaving them behind. So it is a real opportunity to do something smart I believe will be cost-effective but will have a maximum impact because the location of Katanning.”

People gathered at a special meeting organise to develop a strategy to win government backing for an Aboriginal Medical Service in the town.

Deborah Woods said their goal was simple “To work with community around improving services outcomes for Noongar people of the central great southern in particular with a strong focus on health outcomes for Noongar health services.”

The growing mood according Ms Woods from the community was that: "They feel neglected in the region of this state they feel that they offer and advantage in relation to innovation in the delivery of services because they're the hub."

Elders like May Penny from Tambalup has lived in the area and has needed to travel for medical services for over 50 years the most damning statement from May is how little has changed in that time.

Ms Penny said she remembered needing dental and having to travel to neighbouring Narrogin on public transport while pregnant with two small children at the time.

"With me that was about forty years ago, has there been any improvement since? Well they have Aboriginal health workers now but there is still no dental. I'm not what Aboriginal people can access easily."

In Katanning the hospital is currently undergoing massive room renovations and expansions, with new facilities being put in place.

But people here are concerned at the lack of culturally sensitive accessible medical care for Aboriginal people.

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Part of establishing the Medical Service was the formation for a board comprised of people from the community, new Board members like Belinda Bolton have long been calling for the creating of the AMS and says: "It's something that should've happened 20 years ago and yes desperately needed here."

The need for a drug rehab facility for the great southern has been the strongest call made by those at the Katanning meeting and the locals like Belinda Bolton and Paula Cole who both have worked in the health services of the area feel they know what is lacking.

Paula Cole says: “Because parents are drug affected alcohol affected parents also need help so we need to help the parents. We've actually got the St Andrews residential college that's actually empty it’s got 50 beds got three apartments it’s perfectly set up as a rehab centre."

The St Andrews Residential College is a facility shrouded in controversy. Shut down since 2006 after the Blaxwell Inquiry revealed the hostel was one of several run by convicted paedophiles Dennis and Neil McKenna. The structure has room for over 100 residents, with a basketball court, horse stable and even a cinema. The utilisation of the old College was one of the first ideas put forward by the new board.

Belinda Bolton says: “It's the same as if you bought a house if you own your own house you have a ownership and you take pride in what you got” When referring to establishing the old College as a possible rehab centre. Ms Bolton believes that “if they can obtain the college. There are a lot of things that could come out of that as long as we have people with vision."

Drug rehab isn't the only need here though. Gary Ryder who has also volunteered for the board sees the lack of renal care in Katanning as another major issue.

Mr Ryder says: "It would be a lot easier to have dialysis here in Katanning instead of travelling to Albany or Perth it's so much more stress for us old sure people to travel." 

The group has been encouraged to write directly to federal parliament from advisors these first steps taken in Katanning could see the regional centre keep sick and ailing Noongar people on country. Having culturally appropriate medical services on Noongar country is one of the most important factors to the people here.

The community has now been encouraged to write directly to Federal Parliament in the hopes of securing the funding required.

Because throughout the meeting there was one constant sentiment.

While a long road lay ahead to achieve the goal of an Aboriginal Medical Service for the region, whether you recover or you don’t, being on your country was the most important thing of all.