Community drives growth

  • Community members and SWAMS staff (in blue uniforms) at the launch of the Katanning Clinic in its second location

Community members and SWAMS staff (in blue uniforms) at the launch of the Katanning Clinic in its second location

Lesley Nelson
South West Aboriginal Medical Service
Lesley Nelson,
Chief Executive Officer

The South West Aboriginal Medical Service (SWAMS) will soon have 200 staff working across south-western Western Australia, up from 80 employees in 2021.

This growth is exponential and is being well received by our clients because they are the ones seeking the support.

Our membership-based health organisation is more than a quarter of a century old and is growing its service range and staffing levels alongside our community.

We find it empowering to be able to grow in this strong or, as we call it in Noongar, a moorditj way. And it’s also making our community stronger.

We started in Bunbury, south of Perth, in 1997 and now have seven medical clinics across a region that covers more than 30,000 square kilometres, opening most of those clinics in recent years.

Services were introduced after community members came forward requesting more understanding, Aboriginal-led health care in their towns.

SWAMS also launched a Perth-first Aboriginal aged care service in Mandurah recently, helping provide group day programs, home visits and other services to many Elders who would never have accessed aged care supports otherwise.

We are one of three services trialling this type of program in Australia as part of a national aged care capacity-building project, in partnership with the Institute for Urban and Indigenous Health.

We found out during the research phase that, while 27 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians in the region accessed aged care services, only 6 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders were accessing the same types of supports.

Less than a year after our opening we now support 100 clients.

At a health-promotion level, SWAMS and a local media partner consulted extensively and developed a syphilis prevention media campaign that went live this year. The comical advertisement supporting the campaign has been received positively and there has been a significant increase in sexual health testing among clients.

Tackling Indigenous Smoking will return in a concerted way from later this year when the program of the same name is relaunched with us and we build support networks for those who try to quit smoking or vaping.

We are also beginning to provide more comprehensive services on top of our current offerings.

Preparations are underway to launch an Aboriginal Birthing On Country program that will incorporate local cultural practices into childbirth and will eventually see our midwives attend hospital with our clients while they are in labour.

The Birthing On Country model of care supports, encourages and believes in the cultural norms that enable people to be connected to Country and, on a very practical level, it will provide continuity of care for our clients once they enter the hospital setting.

A stronger, culturally safe and more comprehensive environment for pregnant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander SWAMS clients can continue the connection to Country, as well as heal past traumas and feelings of being lost and disconnected.

A more suitable model of care will also encourage clients to begin their visits to our health staff earlier in their pregnancies, ultimately contributing to an improvement in health and wellbeing outcomes. In 2021, just 44 per cent of our clients saw a SWAMS health worker during their first trimester, well below the national average of 60 per cent. We want to see our mums earlier.

SWAMS is also partnering with the Palmerston Association to deliver additional reintegration services to prisoners in our region.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison will, for the first time, be able to access our alcohol, other drug, mental health and primary health reintegration services while they are still in prison.

It’s something we have done outside the prison system for many years, but supporting people in prison, as well as their families, before their release is expected to reduce imprisonment rates in the longer term by addressing health issues and rates of recidivism.

Our staff are now excited that many of our services will eventually be brought under one roof at a purpose-built Bunbury Health Hub that has received federal and state government support.

These are just some of the programs SWAMS offer, supported by a team of dedicated and appreciated staff and a board and members that we are proud to serve.

With that behind us, we can achieve even greater things together in the next 25 years.

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