Associate Professor Luke Burchill

Associate Professor Luke Burchill (MBBS (Hons) 1999, PhD 2013) is Australia’s first Aboriginal cardiologist. He is a Yorta Yorta/ Dja Dja Warrung man who grew up in Mooroopna, near Echuca. He is based at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and is a clinician scientist with the Department of Medicine and Radiology.

Associate Professor Luke Burchill

Right now, my worlds have collided with COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter. The protests have drawn attention to what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have always known – that the intersection between racism and adverse life outcomes is real. The systems that perpetuate these inequities need to be everyone’s concern – not only those who currently fall between the cracks.

I was fortunate to grow up on country. Mooroopna has a large Aboriginal community. I had a lot of uncles, aunties and cousins. My inspiration to study medicine and then cardiovascular (CV) medicine came from both my grandmother Iris, who had paraplegia and diabetes, and my mother Marlene (MSW 2003), who completed a Master of Social Work in her 50s and passed on an incredible work ethic.

I learned early on that I was destined to walk two roads. My cousins would joke that I was a Gubbarigini – meaning a white blackfella. With an English father and an Aboriginal mother, I have fair skin but Aboriginal blood running through my heart. I have often felt like a fly on the wall because I’m not visibly Aboriginal.

The bush roads of my Yorta Yorta childhood eventually became the city roads of my adulthood. I was inspired by the history of innovation and the ability to save lives with new technologies including pacemakers, implantable valves, coronary stents, mechanical hearts and heart transplantation. I completed a PhD and travelled overseas to undertake postdoctoral fellowships that took me from the bench to the bedside to the population. I trained with world-leading clinicians and scientists in Canada and the USA.

Standing amidst the marble and glass of the Cleveland Clinic – arguably the world’s leading centre for CV medicine – I had to pinch myself that I was there. But as time went on, I also realised how far removed I was from the real world. I saw firsthand that those benefiting from latest innovations were wealthy and insured. I realised that to achieve widespread improvement in health outcomes we needed to focus less on mechanical hearts and transplants and invest more in how people access and receive quality healthcare.

More than 50 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not screened for CV disease. Of those who are screened, only 50 per cent receive guideline-based treatment. Among those who make it to hospital we know that Indigenous people are significantly less likely to have a coronary angiogram or to have blocked coronary vessels fixed. And the question for all of this is, “Why?” My research seeks to answer this question. We need to – and we can – close the gap through data-driven research.

Most Aboriginal health research focuses on Aboriginal people living in remote areas. This might explain the missed opportunities to improve CV outcomes. Eighty per cent of Aboriginal people live in cities, compared to seven per cent in remote areas, yet accounted for just 11 per cent of research from 2004-2009.

The Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences (MDHS) stands with Murrup Barak, Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development and First Nations in condemning racism in all forms.

The current coronavirus pandemic has shown that medical voices are influential in leading governments along safe and healthy paths. We urge all Australians to stand alongside Indigenous people and communities and unify against racially motivated violence and deaths in custody.

At 45, I have already outlived many other Aboriginal men and women who have died from heart disease. Indigenous Australians between the ages of 35-44 – our emerging elders – are nine to 12 times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than their non-Indigenous counterparts. It’s the leading cause of death and the largest contributor to the health gap for Aboriginal Australians. We need our elders to be strong so that they can pass those stories down.

Hear more about Associate Professor Luke Burchill’s story by tuning into our next edition of Alumni Hour.

Black Lives Matter

The Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences (MDHS) stands with Murrup Barak, Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development and First Nations in condemning racism in all forms.

The current coronavirus pandemic has shown that medical voices are influential in leading governments along safe and healthy paths. We urge all Australians to stand alongside Indigenous people and communities and unify against racially motivated violence and deaths in custody.