Bridging the cancer care gap for Aboriginal Australians

Cancer is the second most common cause of death for Aboriginal people, who are 43% more likely to die from the disease than other Australians. Cancer Council researcher Professor Dianne O’Connell is working to understand some of the reasons why.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with significantly lower survival rates than for other Australians, despite similar overall cancer incidence. This worrying situation highlights the enormous gap in services, information and support available for Aboriginal people within our cancer care system.

Cancer Council researcher Professor Dianne O’Connell, along with a team of specialist researchers and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, have undertaken Australian-first research looking at the cancer experiences of Aboriginal people.

Called the Aboriginal Patterns of Cancer Care (APOCC) project, this rewarding research program has significantly improved our understanding of what influences, and what improves, the experiences of Aboriginal people affected by cancer.

The APOCC project has been one of the most important and most challenging pieces of work I have completed in my career and I am proud of what Cancer Council has achieved in this area.

Research results highlighted the significant levels of social exclusion that many Aboriginal people experience when navigating the health care system. Barriers such as social and economic disadvantage, fear and mistrust of the health care system and a general lack of knowledge and understanding of cancer and its treatment significantly restricted access to care.

There were also significant cultural differences identified. Aboriginal people were more likely to forgo cancer treatment if they had to leave their family or Country to receive treatment, or if travel and treatment costs were too great. The fact that very few cancer public information campaigns contained Aboriginal faces, meant Aboriginal people were less likely to see them as relevant to their own health.

Overall, the APOCC project has strongly demonstrated that the focus of cancer care for Aboriginal people needs to be broadened to include the psychological, financial, social and practical needs of Aboriginal people affected by cancer. We need to improve awareness of cancer within the community and amongst health professionals. There needs to be increased investment into research, and ensure that all our health services include Aboriginal health workers and peer support.

A major highlight from this project was seeing brilliant young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people embarking on further study and continuing this important research work.

The outcomes of this major Cancer Council study have given us an important understanding of the needs of Aboriginal people affected by cancer. With the support of government and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, Cancer Council is now working to translate these findings into better cancer care and significantly improved health outcomes.

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