From the small town of Trangie to a network of like-minded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professionals, it’s community that’s been at the heart of Faye McMillan’s work
Associate Professor Faye McMillan, a Wiradjuri woman who was Australia’s first Aboriginal registered pharmacist, has been named NSW’s 2019 NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year.
Dr McMillan, Director of the Djirruwang Program – Bachelor of Health Science (Mental Health) at Charles Sturt University Wagga Wagga, an inaugural Atlantic Fellow and a founding member of Indigenous Allied Health Australia, told the AJP that she was “very humbled” to receive the award this month.
She began working in a pharmacy in her home town of Trangie, near Dubbo in NSW.
“It was a beautiful way to be part of people’s lives in the community,” she told the AJP. “And I had a pharmacist who believed in me.
“People would stop by or stick their head in the door just to say hello, or tell us if there was good news. It wasn’t going out of your way to go the pharmacy – so you did feel very much a part of people’s lives.
“I recall one day when the pharmacist wasn’t available and we couldn’t open the shop, so we set up a table out the front. The conversation that took place was amazing.
“It was, ‘is everybody okay?’ People were making sure the pharmacist was okay and asking if there was anything they could do. It really did bring about that notion of why small rural towns become part of who you are.”
Trangie was a “wonderful” place to grow up, she said, saying that as an adult she can look back and see discrimination and its impact on family members, but that overall, “people looked out for you”.
Dr McMillan was soon part of the inaugural cohort of students taking on Charles Sturt University’s pharmacy degree; from there, she moved into academia.
“The realisation that there’s so few pharmacists who are Aboriginal drew me to that,” she says. “That was solidified even in the curricula, coming through: the conversations about working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was being led by a person from New Zealand. There weren’t any other Aboriginal pharmacists.
“That’s what led me back into academia, in the sense that I did exactly the same as everyone else, but I also viewed my practice through the lens of my own experience as an Aboriginal woman. That has a lot to contribute to the way our profession engages with people, as person-centred care.”
Dr McMillan says that this perspective means she understands the influence of culture, and the relationships culture brings.
“Being able to view that through my own lens has meant I can also see the importance of culture to other people – we’re a very multicultural and intercultural society.”
Being able to see the influence of culture on how people manage their medicines is a key example, she says, as health professionals seek to support the effective use of medicines by patients.
“I dislike the word ‘compliance,’ as it insinuates a choice, when sometimes it’s not,” she says. “This can go to understanding caring relationships and their impact on the financial ability of people to engage with a complete medication regime, particularly if they’re on multiple or complex medications.”
It’s easy for health professionals to miss the fact that patients who do not, on the surface, appear to have caring responsibilities may in fact be executing a fine balancing act when it comes to their health and that of loved ones.
“For example, they could be choosing between getting medicines or choosing to provide meals.”
Dr McMillan was a founding member of Indigenous Allied Health Australia, which has been bringing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professionals from a variety of health backgrounds together for 10 years.
“It was born out of a recognition of how few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people there were in the health professions, and that not only did we need professional support, we also needed cultural support, to be able to use our culture to enhance our professional practices,” she says.
“But when that’s not easily visible within a profession, neither is the ability to network with like-minded people.
“That’s how IAHA came about. We’re from different professions, but as a group we have the opportunity to talk to people who have similar experiences of not having their culture reflected in their profession.
“Whilst there were professional bodies, they didn’t reflect the diversity of the people involved in the professions, so that was the impetus – that and networking, and the recognition of the professionalism of people in allied health who were also Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.”
Recruitment and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in all aspects of the health workforce is a key issue, she says… as is collaboration with the wider health network.
“It allows diversity to be truly reflected across allied health, and it’s wonderful to help create aspirations for people to move into a health workforce where they feel they are going to be respected not just for their professionalism, but also for their cultural knowledge,” Dr McMillan says.
“At the same time, it’s not to be seen as a token, or used to try and increase the awareness of other professionals around the issue. It’s not the sole responsibility of one group to increase the awareness of everyone – everyone needs to work together to ensure that becomes part of everyday practice.”
Dr McMillan says while it’s good that many other health professionals are increasingly interested in learning about how culture and experience impacts health and practice, “the fatigue that can be placed on members of that diverse group to become the font of knowledge is unjust and unfair”.
“We don’t ask people of other demographics to be the expert on everything… and I think that becomes a challenge, if you identify as being Aboriginal, or in my case Wiradjuri, then I must know everything about being Wiradjuri!
“But I can only talk about my lived experience, I’m not the go-to person for all things Wiradjuri. We’re still trying to reach parity in all the health professions. In doing that, it does still mean there’s still such a small number of people for others to look to, to try and create solutions… but the thing is, everybody’s part of the solution.”
As for being named NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year, Dr McMillan says that she feels humbled.
“I think nobody does their day-to-day work or their passion for the recognition, but when it does come, it is a moment of reflection: to look around and see there are people out there who are willing to work with you, and want to learn more about working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” she says.
“That gives me hope. And we all need hope.”