A vision of Indigenous health and wellbeing

Gail Garvey

Image: Murray McKean

Image: Murray McKean

Cancer is a leading cause of death in Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The disease is often accompanied by multiple comorbidities, which complicate diagnosis and shortens the time between prognosis and death.

Professor Gail Garvey, a Goori woman from NSW, is determined to change this through her new role as Professor of Indigenous Health Research at UQ’s School of Public Health.

Her main research areas are cancer and wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, topics she is very passionate about, partly due to heartbreaking personal experience.

“My sister-in-law frequently attended a hospital emergency department with lower back pain and it just wasn’t thoroughly investigated,” Professor Garvey explains.

“She kept being shunned away because of the negative stereotypical attitudes from staff because she was Aboriginal.

“When she found out she had cervical cancer, it was too late, and she passed within weeks of being diagnosed.

“My mum passed away from stomach cancer. She was seeing her GP, but because she had diabetes, reflux and a heart condition, she wasn’t fully investigated until it was too late, and then her cancer was inoperable.

“When I speak with GPs now, I encourage them to rule out cancer first and then look at everything else, because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people come with multiple comorbidities.”

Professor Garvey’s cancer research focuses on prevention and early detection, through to end-of-life care with support for the patient and family.

Gail Garvey
Illustration based on Aboriginal style of dot background.

Image: rashmisingh/Adobe Stock

Image: rashmisingh/Adobe Stock

“A cancer diagnosis and going through cancer treatment can have a significant impact not only on the patient, but also on their family,” Professor Garvey explains.

“Caregivers of cancer patients tend to have higher levels of psychological distress and unmet support needs because they’re usually a family member, untrained, unpaid and trying to navigate a complex health system.

“If we can support the carers and family of Indigenous cancer patients, then they can support the patient and hopefully keep them engaged with health services to try to get better outcomes.”

Understandings of health and wellbeing are culturally bound and Professor Garvey views wellbeing as the key to improving the health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but until now there hasn’t been a culturally appropriate way to measure it.

“In collaboration with the University of Sydney and over 2000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adult participants, we have developed a world-first tool to measure and value wellbeing dimensions that are important to Indigenous Australians” Professor Garvey explains.

“We’re now developing a youth wellbeing measure in collaboration with schools across Australia, and communities like Borroloola in the Northern Territory.

“We’re also collaborating with youth foundations, such as the Moriarty and STARS Foundations – both of which provide intensive support programs for Indigenous students, as well as other organisations.

“It’s crucial that we understand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing from an Indigenous perspective that incorporates language, culture, and considers our access to basic services, education and our experiences of racism.”

Professor Garvey is leading the way through collaboration, notably hosting the World Indigenous Cancer Conference in Brisbane in 2016.

“It was the first global conference on cancer in Indigenous peoples, and the first time we’d brought international Indigenous experts together from around the world to share, collaborate and build networks,” Professor Garvey recalls.

“That was a real trigger for work and publications that followed, as there are lots of lessons we can learn through sharing knowledge.

“Rather than having silos, let’s build on what each other knows, so that we can achieve better outcomes sooner, globally.”

Professor Garvey works closely with colleagues in New Zealand, Canada, the USA and the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC), raising the agenda on Indigenous people and cancer globally.

“I want to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people locally, nationally and internationally to lead and direct the work we’re doing, and partner with groups such as IARC, Cancer Australia and others, so we can have a greater focus and impact,” Professor Garvey explains.       

“I would like to see a comprehensive cancer care program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that includes and considers the things we value as Indigenous people.

“I would like to see a substantially increased Indigenous workforce in cancer care, including care coordinators and oncologists.

“Cancer screening saves lives, and I would like to see increased participation in cancer screening and reduced Indigenous cancer rates.

“I’m excited to be here at UQ, so that I can further my research in this area and turn these goals into a reality.”

Gail Garvey

This story is featured in the Summer 2021 edition of UQmedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine, visit our blog, MayneStream.