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How Aboriginal Healers Do Healthcare Collaboration for Complementary Medicine

Posted by Lawrence Kerr on Thu, Apr 05, 2018 @ 06:00 AM

joey-csunyo-512460-unsplashLyn Ackerman has had 9 heart attacks and an infection she contracted from surgical tools. But she says that one of her biggest challenges has been being far from her community. 

She's also indigenous and is similarly distanced from her culture every time she goes into the hospital. Even waiting for an appointment has felt alienating and treatment has often felt irrelevant, far from the healers that she says many indigenous people are more familiar with. She said, "The healers' power for Indigenous people lay with their ability to reconnect them to culture, the lifeblood of their spiritual being."

This sense of alienation, as well as poor health outcomes, has continued until a new program was implemented in a local hospital. And for Lyn, everything started to turn around.

This new program is bringing aboriginal healers (Ngankari healers) -- whose tradition goes back 60,000 years -- into hospitals across Australia.

The healers work separately but in collaboration with conventional healthcare providers, in the hospital or clinic setting. As ABC reports, Ngangkari healers use their hands to, as they describe it, move energy and spirit. It's been shown to alleviate pain symptoms. 

One indigenous woman said, "I'd rather go to the Aboriginal clinic where you sit back, can have a yarn, catch up with family and friends." In other words: I prefer medical care when there is a connective, socially embedded component. And one of the biggest impacts of the program has been improved attendance rates. People comply with medical treatment when they feel it is appropriate to their lives and working in the ways they want it to.

It's an example of both complementary medicine and healthcare collaboration. Healers certainly don't replace conventional medicine in the hospital setting. And the doctors and the hospital aren't excluding the healers. Instead, each modality is respected as an important part of the whole picture for patients who may struggle with the way conventional medicine intersects with their beliefs and experience. And the program is in place to support appropriate elements of the team in providing and coordinating care. Of the Ngangkari healer program, Jon Wardle, a senior lecturer in public health at the University of Technology Sydney says: “Including healers in a hospital setting could also reduce the risks alternative medicine could have, such as physical trauma caused by under-qualified therapists, or interactions with prescriptions drugs if a patient was offered herbal medicine.”

This setup might seem a world away for many of us, with little experience of traditional healers. But the importance of having a holistic social/cultural/emotional view of care as well as a more expansive understanding of the medical team, is crucial for many patients. It's a dynamic that comes up for the high school athlete who has to miss games to travel to a specialist appointment three counties away -- and who would do better with compliance if his doctors were collaborating. Or the older gentleman who needs a change to his medication and may not come in if he feels like the doctor hasn’t understood the full scope of his challenges and can't get the social worker and doctor on the phone together.

Of course, the most commonly thought about forms of complementary medicine are things like acupuncture. Many of these "complementary" treatments are sidelined, and healthcare collaboration with doctors or the conventional medical team doesn't happen. Because of this shortcoming, treatment or medication conflicts can occur, and patients may be less compliant. Because of our limited idea of the "medical team" and our limited tools to do healthcare collaboration, care suffers.

When more people are part of the medical team, more modalities can be used to care for the patient. And that's always a good thing. The more integrated the team is, the more divergent but complementary the viewpoints, the more progress can be made. I think we can all learn from the Ngangkari healers and their doctor colleagues -- and I believe that we can all find ways to work together, whatever our context.

Try a tool that lets you collaborate with colleagues, especially in complementary medicine contexts:

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Tags: care coordination, healthcare collaboration

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