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Case Study: Coroner finds racist bias in medical treatment of Indigenous people in NSW

Coroner Finds Racist Bias In Medical Treatment Of Indigenous People In NSW – Naomi Williams

WARNING: This story talks about an Aboriginal person who has died

Catherine Henry Lawyers is a supporter of the National Justice Project co-founded by civil rights lawyer George Newhouse.

NJP is a not-for-profit legal service dedicated to representing and giving voice to the vulnerable who would otherwise be unable to find legal representation. It is a wonderful example of how court work and advocacy can be used to build a fairer justice system and more equitable society.

As they say on their website, the NJP uses “strategic litigation, education, and advocacy as tools to fight discrimination and demand systemic change for the most marginalised people. (Their).. clients include First Nations people who have been harmed by discrimination in health care, children in offshore detention whose fragile psyches have been destroyed by years of isolation on Pacific islands due to Australia’s policy of sending asylum seekers offshore for processing, and the families of those who have died in custody at coronial inquests.

The NJP have seen reform in health services, prisons, and detention centres as a direct result of our work.

Last month, the firm’s principal, Catherine Henry, gave a lecture to the National Justice Project Social Justice team on the subject of promoting social justice through health care litigation.

An example of the important work of the NJP is a coronial inquest into the tragic death of Wiradjuri woman, Naomi Williams, who was 22 weeks pregnant when she died of septicaemia in Tumut Hospital in NSW.

The NSW Deputy Coroner who presided said the issue for the inquest was broader than the circumstances of Naomi’s death. It looked at whether the care Naomi received was affected or compromised by unconscious, implicit bias or racism.

The Coroner found that when Naomi went to hospital that night the hospital should have received further examination rather than being discharged earlier than was clinically indicated. It also heard evidence of stereotyping Indigenous people as more likely to use drugs and alcohol.

The Court found Naomi’s care was affected by unconscious and implicit bias or racism. The Coroner highlighted that many Aboriginal people “feel they cannot go up to the hospital as they won’t get the treatment they need.” The unequal treatment and state wide health outcome inequality amongst Aboriginal people– exemplified by this tragic case –  is prevalent. It certainly affected the care provided to Naomi.

The Coroner also concluded that the care the hospital staff gave to Naomi’s family, following her death, was neither compassionate nor appropriate.

The Coroner made a number of recommendations to the Murrumbidgee Local Health District (MLHD) around strategies for developing culturally appropriate care, making the Aboriginal Health Liaison Worker program available 24 hours a day, staff training, and measuring implicit bias.

The NJP is correct when it says that while access to healthcare is a basic human right, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience significant discrimination and even negligence in their medical treatment. That’s certainly my experience from the medical negligence cases and inquests our firm handles for Indigenous clients.

The NJP’s Aboriginal Health Justice Project is a targeted health-law service for First Nations peoples and communities who have experienced discrimination in healthcare or medical negligence.

The NJP does not seek or receive any government funding. It relies on donations from the community to run the practice.

To find out more about the work of the NJP visit www.justice.org.au


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