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Inspiration to break glass ceiling

1 July 2022

Creativity infuses all aspects of life for Aboriginal GP Registrar Dr Kathryn Dalmer.

An accomplished artist and a mother of three girls, this Wiradjuri woman has learnt to be inventive in addressing challenges as a medical student in her 40s and now a JCU GP in training in Cooroy on the Sunshine Coast.

“Art is a beautiful way to be able to express myself and keep culturally connected while I’m doing medicine,” Dr Dalmer says. “I make art for pleasure and as a spiritual outlet, and I take great pride in the fact that my art is not only valued but commercially successful.”

Her striking entry was chosen as the design for a JCU GP Training shirt to mark the 2022 NAIDOC theme, Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up!, after submissions were invited from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.

Dr Dalmer says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors and registrars have complex backgrounds with extended family responsibilities and are often older than their non-Indigenous colleagues. But her message to anyone who is contemplating a career in general practice later in their working lives is: “It’s all worthwhile.”

“I think being more mature helps us learn things in different ways which are more sustainable. We have to be more creative with how we approach how our medical journeys. It's probably, I think, in some ways, more fulfilling because you are not just doing it for yourself.

'You are not just doing it for yourself'

“I've got three little girls who, instead of encountering the glass ceiling that they would have had coming from a blue-collar family, are contemplating what sort of doctor they could be, or thinking, ‘I can be a lawyer, a vet or an astronautical engineer.’ It has lifted their life expectations. That’s huge.”

Dr Dalmer says the family’s new base on the Sunshine Coast hinterland has a strong sense of community: “We've been really welcomed by the community, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.”

“I enjoy the connectedness that you get from being in a rural area and the opportunities of being in a small community. I'm quite involved with the local Aboriginal community with my children doing dancing at the primary school and other sorts of activities with the local surf club and in the community. Building connections in everyday activities breaks down barriers to approach a health professional as they are familiar to you. This increases access to basic health care. My aim is to be of service to my community.”

She says a key influence for GP registrars is a placement that is nurturing and supportive. "With the emphasis of GP education being on experiential learning, access to committed quality supervisors is essential to your growth and development. I am currently fortunate enough to have a main supervisor and two secondary supervisors who are all very supportive, and experienced in both their medicine and their teaching experiences,” she says.

“I am really grateful to be doing my general practice training with JCU. The wholehearted support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander team provides is unique. The general support that we're given and that acknowledgement that there are those differences for us is so much more than any other training organisation that I'm aware of in Australia.

“I would say if you were contemplating GP training, to do it through JCU as a regional registrar. Make sure you keep a balance between family and community connections, and extend that to the supports that are offered through the Indigenous organisations within general training, the IGPRN (Indigenous General Practice Registrars Network), JCU Indigenous Education and Research Centre, and AIDA (Australian Indigenous Doctors' Association). Those networks and the committed individuals within them have helped me throughout my medical journey." 

Following the need

Dr Dalmer is a former social worker who worked with young people in custody, child protection and foster care before embarking on a medical degree in her hometown of Wollongong.

“It was a progression of following need to help people in my community,” she says. “My first job was working in juvenile justice centres as counsellor for young women in custody.

“I noticed a lot of these kids came from abusive backgrounds, had unsettled home lives and the whole lower socio-economic and demographic stresses of overcrowding, no value on education and decreased access to health care. I wanted to help those kids before they got into the justice system, so I shifted to child protection, where I worked across a 20-year span.”

Within the child protection field, Dr Dalmer worked with children in foster care as well as recruiting, training and supporting foster carers and relative carers

“With our Aboriginal population, there is a high proportion of relative and kinship foster carers because the Child Protection Act directs us towards that for very good reason,” she says. “In many large extended families, the responsibility on those few who are functioning well to care for the children of those who are not adds unforeseen pressures which compound their own health needs."

She said there were often multiple barriers to having these needs met, including time pressures and fear of being seen as inadequate in their carer role. “A supportive GP could really make a big difference for that individual carer, the children in their care and the recovery journey of those children’s parents,” she says.

Connection to support

“I held a number of roles in the child protection field, including setting up early intervention programs to try to stop people entering the child protection system, then in specialist units where it was just Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families to stop them having their children removed.

“What became obvious for me in all of these different spaces was the lack of connection to baseline support systems – your local GP, your local playgroup, your school. I was seeing a whole lot of kids diagnosed with and medicated for ADHD and ADD when my assessment of them without my medical knowledge was that they had post-traumatic stress.

“Being a GP, for me, is a natural career progression towards helping people before they have problems, helping with preventative health, and with understanding and translating health issues.

“To get better health outcomes, we need to make sure people are engaged with their health and their health needs in a way that is meaningful to them.”

Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up!

Having her design chosen for the 2022 JCU GP Training NAIDOC shirt is not the first time Dr Kathryn Dalmer’s art and health worlds have blended.

Dr Dalmer’s pieces have been adapted to accentuate presentations by health professionals at local, national and international workshops and conferences. Images from one of her works were converted to an animated movie and adapted to printed promotional material for the Melbourne Medical Conference in 2018. Her works have been displayed in exhibitions in Sydney and Illawarra, and hang as far afield as Sweden, Canada and the United States.

Dr Dalmer uses a combination of traditional Aboriginal symbols and styles with contemporary imagery and colours on canvas and ceramics, as well as photography.

In her artist’s statement for her winning NAIDOC piece, she writes:

"Our Australian Indigenous GP registrars may appear as other registrars on the surface; however, our role has complex interwoven elements and responsibilities. As individual First Nations people, we have different experiences of health and psychosocial health, different family and community experiences and responsibilities and different educational experiences that we bring together to our training organisation, JCU, to our communities and to the broader landscape of general practice. The central figure represents how in simply being Indigenous doctors we demonstrate a joining of ancient and contemporary ways of ‘being’ and bring that to our medical practice. In simply being Indigenous doctors, we demonstrate the NAIDOC theme of 2022, “Get up! Stand Up! Show up!” This is what we do daily.”

JCU delivers a GP training program committed to developing a general practice workforce that works effectively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples towards improving their health outcomes. 

Find out more about training opportunities in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health

James Cook University is committed to building strong and mutually beneficial partnerships that work towards closing the employment, health and education gap for Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Our students come from many backgrounds, promoting a rich cultural and experiential diversity on campus.

We acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Custodians of the Australian lands and waters where our staff and students live, learn and work. We honour the unique cultural and spiritual relationship to the land, waters and seas of First Australian peoples and their continuing and rich contribution to James Cook University (JCU) and Australian society. We also pay respect to ancestors and Elders past, present and future.

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