I’ve lost count of how many times I heard politicians utter the phrase “closing the gap” over the past year. The “gap” is the vast difference in health and life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
The statistics are frightening. If you’re an indigenous Australian, chances are your life will be up to 20 years shorter than a non-indigenous Australian. And during that life-time, you’re much more likely to experience poor health and chronic illness.There are many complex reasons this health gap exists. One of them is that many indigenous folk live in remote communities, far away from the health care facilities we take for granted in cities and larger towns.
And so our governments talk of policies and measures to “close the gap”. Depending who you’re listening to, the words sometimes sound like a call to arms, at other times like a tired old slogan. And inevitably, political parties disagree on strategies and priorities. Rhetoric and political squabbling can make it hard to identify the challenges and assess our progress toward closing that awful gap.
So it was refreshing to have the chance to meet someone who spends his working days actually closing the gap, and to get some real insight into how it’s being done and what more is needed. Charles Ellis is a doctor at the Lockhart River Primary Health Care Centre, where he’s worked since 2003.
Lockhart River is an indigenous community on eastern Cape York, 800 kilometres from the nearest major hospital in Cairns. The Health Care Centre has 24 hour accident and emergency services, and provides health care and promotion services in conjunction with the Royal Flying Doctor Service and Apunipima Cape York Health Council.
It’s a modern well-equipped facility, but it is a long way from large hospitals and specialists. That puts Charles Ellis and his team on a challenging medical front-line.