Reaching for the sky

Dr Ngaree Blow (BSc 2011, MPH 2015, MD 2015) is a Noonuccal, Goreng-Goreng and Yorta Yorta medical doctor leading Melbourne Medical School’s new Wurru Wurru Health Unit

Deciding on a career in medicine and focusing on how to improve First Nations health was a natural choice for Dr Ngaree Blow. Her mother was a microbiologist and her father was a strong supporter of their local Aboriginal health service and is a respected Elder in Queensland’s Moreton Bay region.

“Dad arranged transport so the Elders could access health services and now runs a successful business supporting his local community. My aunties and uncles were health rights activists and so I grew up with those influences. I also saw my family directly affected by loss and grief around illnesses and diseases that were preventable. There were low expectations at school in terms of me being able to study medicine, as an Aboriginal woman, so there was an element of me wanting to prove people wrong as well!” says Dr Blow.

After completing a Bachelor of Science, Dr Blow was one of the first students at the University of Melbourne to do the inter-collated Master of Public Health and Doctor of Medicine degree.

“I was interested in public health because it looks at health and wellbeing in the same holistic way that we as Aboriginal people look at it. Everything affects your health – your mind, body, spiritual health, the connection to land and family and your community, education, housing, employment and many other factors,” says Dr Blow.

While working in public health, Dr Blow maintained links with the University of Melbourne through teaching medical students about First Nations health.

“First Nations health has often been seen as a separate part of medicine and something you only look at if you are interested in working in an Aboriginal medical service. I wanted to change that focus and for people to understand that First Nations health is embedded in everything we do in medicine and in healthcare,” she says.

“First Nations people may only be three per cent of the population, but our percentage representation in the healthcare system is huge. All healthcare professionals need to have a good understanding of why First Nations health is where it is at now and how it can be improved.”

Illustrating Melbourne Medical School’s drive to foster greater understanding of First Nations health, during NAIDOC Week in July 2022 the Wurru Wurru Health Unit was launched. The Unit was formed through the First Nations Health Team in the Department of Medical Education and is embedding Indigenous ways of knowing into health communication and training of medical students and the medical workforce in collaboration with the local Traditional Owners..

‘Wurru Wurru’ translates to ‘Sky’ in the Woi-Wurrung language and originates from a Wurundjeri teaching that refers to the six layers of country. ‘Wurru Wurru Bik’ – Sky Country – sits between the country above the clouds (Tharangalk) and the layers below and symbolises the overarching connectedness of all things. Wurru Wurru also signifies the sacred kingfisher bird, which is also represented in the Unit’s logo.

“A huge part of our teaching is ensuring all health professionals graduate from this university with a good understanding of cultural sensitivity and how to be culturally safe health practitioners. We know that cultural safety improves health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” says Dr Blow.

“We are also well aware of the mistrust of the healthcare system by our communities because of the historical and ongoing impacts of colonisation. We want to rebuild trust with communities so everyone is able to access healthcare that is free of racism and discrimination.”

Dr Blow has become a leading voice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and she is determined that the Wurru Wurru Health Unit will have positive impacts for First Nations healthcare.

She is also a member of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association (AIDA). During the pandemic, Dr Blow worked with the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services’ COVID-19 response team to adapt some holistic First Nations health principles for other Melbourne communities.

Wurru Wurru’s work is also garnering international interest, with Dr Blow and colleagues invited to present at the Pacific Region Indigenous Doctors Congress (PRIDoC) in Canada and at Auckland University in New Zealand. First Nations Canadians are keen to work with Wurru Wurru and to model something similar in healthcare studies in Canadian universities.

“I am standing on the shoulders of giants and it is because of our ancestors and Elders that I am able to do this work. I am passionate about health education and health promotion and empowering our communities with knowledge of their own health and wellbeing,” says Dr Blow.

“Eventually, I hope our work leads to us not having to talk about closing the health and healthcare gap anymore.”