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Healing from the Centre: integrating Aboriginal healing into the health system

1 March 2021

News and media


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An innovative South Australian program is working to improve Aboriginal health outcomes, and create more positive experiences with the health system, by integrating traditional Aboriginal ‘Ngangkari’ healers into the work of health clinics and hospitals.

In 2019, the North Adelaide Local Health Network (NALHN) entered into a partnership with the Anangu Ngangkari Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation (ANTAC) to deliver traditional Aboriginal treatments to patients in primary and acute care settings. Ngangkari (traditional healers) registered with ANTAC provide a variety of services which have been vetted by clinicians to ensure safety.

The long journey to get recognition for traditional healers is documented in a new video case ‘Healing from the Centre’ written for ANZSOG’s John L. Alford Case Library, which outlines the benefits of blending Aboriginal and western treatments.

The case shows how an approach that puts health care into a broader context that recognises social drivers of poor Indigenous health, including the impact of trauma and colonisation, can improve outcomes for Aboriginal people.

WATCH: Video case ‘Healing from the Centre’

Traditional healers, known as Ngangkari in the Aboriginal languages of central Australia, act as a mixture of a general practitioner and psychiatrist. Ngangkari are often selected to become healers in early childhood and have sacred knowledge and skills passed on to them by elders.

They believe physical health is indistinguishable from spiritual and mental health which is underpinned by connectedness to kin, country, community and culture. They are especially known for their ability to deal with mental disturbances such as anxiety and depression.

Ngangkari Debbie Watson says that “some people they get really sick, like losing family or losing country, that’s why people get sick. Only the spirit can help, because the spirit is connected to hurt and we can look after our spirit”.

Dr Francesca Panzironi, an Italian academic was concerned by Australia’s lack of recognition of Aboriginal medicine and its absence from the government-funded health care system.

She underook research in the early 2010s that found a “holistic two-way healthcare model incorporating conventional and traditional medicine would have many benefits for Aboriginal people including: a more comprehensive assessment of patients ailments, a reduction in misdiagnosis, a calming effect on patients and enhanced compliance with western medical treatments”.

Ngangkari were being used by organisation in remote areas on an ad hoc basis, due to strong demand from Aboriginal people. The biggest obstacles to their increased use were bureaucratic ones around the lack of official recognition or registration.

In 2013 Dr Panzironi worked with Ngangkari Debbie Watson, Taylor Cooper, Witjiti George, Margaret Winton and Mukayi Baker to found ANTAC the Anangu Ngangkari Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation, the first organisation of Aboriginal healers in Australia credentialled by traditional law. ANTAC founded a register for accredited healers, a pay structure and clinic in Adelaide.

Ngangkari are now used in a growing number of settings, including hospitals, to provide care alongside western medicine.

Dr Panzironi says the impact on Aboriginal patients has been incredibly positive.

“I remember once the manager of the hospital said to me ‘Oh my God I have never seen so many Aboriginal people smiling and being so happy to be here’,” she said.

ANTAC is also keeping track of treatments to provide an evidence base for Ngangkari care, with the ultimate goal of seeing federally-funded traditional Indigenous healing made available to all patients across Australia.

Its work is an example of the innovative work being done to close health gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons are more likely to leave emergency departments without being seen, experience preventable admissions, or self-discharge from hospital early. These differences add up to an 8-year gap between the lifespans of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia.

WATCH: Video case ‘Healing from the Centre’

About ANZSOG’s John L. Alford Case Library

ANZSOG’s John L. Alford Case Library brings together carefully constructed ‘stories’ about public sector challenges, dilemmas, successes and failures.

All the cases are real, and every one of them enables you to ‘stand in the shoes’ of the decision-makers at their centre.

When used in executive and graduate classrooms to stimulate discussion and sharpen analysis, ANZSOG cases inspire students to apply their own experience and to give practical shape to key conceptual frameworks, and policy and management tools.

Created in 2004 to remedy the lack of public sector teaching cases relevant to Australia and New Zealand, the library is now the third-largest collection of public policy and management cases in the world, with nearly 200 cases covering a wide range of topics from all levels of government.

It offers users a regularly updated collection of catalogued cases and is designed as a resource for both instructors using interactive teaching approaches, and for practitioners and researchers seeking authoritative accounts and analyses of important public policy and management issues. Each peer-reviewed case is expertly researched and written lucidly in ANZSOG’s signature style.

The Case Library is an open access collection permitting case downloads free of charge. For information on the Case Library, please email caselibrary@anzsog.edu.au.