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Turning the tide on islander health concerns

19 November 2018

For Dr Allison Hempenstall, Thursday Island is a gateway to opportunity.

The first-year General Practice (GP) registrar is relishing the challenge of managing the complex health needs of Torres Strait Islander communities, while pursuing research into tropical diseases.

“We know that health outcomes for Indigenous people in the Torres Strait are poorer than their non-Indigenous counterparts” said Dr Hempenstall, who is in enrolled in James Cook University’s (JCU) GP training program.

“Here, we also care for patients from Papua New Guinea (PNG). There is no other community in Australia that borders another country, let alone a developing country.”

Dr Hempenstall divides her time between the Thursday Island Hospital and the primary healthcare centre on the island.

When on call, she cares for patients in the hospital ward and emergency department, and also responds to requests for medical assistance from outer islands across the Torres Strait.

“We are really lucky that we live in an age where telehealth has come so far,” she observed.

“I can be sitting in an office on Thursday Island, making plans for a patient via video conference with nursing staff and health workers at a primary health centre on another island. If the patient is unwell enough to require transfer to Thursday Island Hospital, we organise a retrieval via helicopter or boat.”

Most of Dr Hempenstall’s work revolves around chronic disease management.

“The diabetes rate here far exceeds that of mainland Australia. Heart disease and chronic kidney disease are also prevalent,” she said.

“But we also see many different tropical infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, melioidosis and chronic hepatitis B.”

She is keen to expand her knowledge and understanding of these diseases through research in her community.

“Historically this region hasn’t had much locally driven research; we are hoping to establish sustainable local research, relevant to the community here,” she said.

Dr Hempenstall currently liaises with two infectious disease consultants in Cairns, who are assisting with her research.

Next year, she plans to embark on a research project into the management of cellulitis, a bacterial infection which develops beneath the surface of the skin and can spread rapidly through the blood.

“Anecdotally, cellulitis is more prevalent in Torres Strait Islanders, because of the tropical climate and prevalence of co-morbidities, such as diabetes.” she said.

She will investigate whether individuals with cellulitis can be managed in their community with intravenous antibiotics, avoiding hospital admission.

“Hopefully, our research will save retrieval and hospital-associated health costs and improve patient satisfaction with our health service,” she said.

In the meantime, Dr Hempenstall is pursuing another project close to her heart – encouraging Thursday Island school students to consider a career in healthcare. The doctor is liaising with local school teachers, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nursing and allied health staff, to organise a health careers promotional event.

“We want to promote health careers by increasing the interest of students in science and the human body,” she said.

“We hope to include fun, interactive activities such as dissecting a pig’s heart to learn about anatomy, using an ultrasound to explore their own bodies, and taking photos of their teeth to learn about dental hygiene.

“We really want to inspire the next generation to consider nursing, allied health or medical careers.”

Dr Hempenstall is keen to give as much as possible to the residents of Thursday Island.

“I am so privileged to be immersed in such a unique culture, providing care to a warm and welcoming community,” she said.

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