Doctors in social advocacy

What role do doctors have in social advocacy?

Doctors for Justice is a new human rights organisation for doctors and other healthcare professionals.

It’s been two months since Sydney GP Dr Sara Townend was moved to action after hearing of a Hazara asylum seeker dying of lung cancer on Nauru without access to proper palliative care.

More than 2300 doctors signed her petition to the Department of Home Affairs to bring the dying man to Australia and ease his passing.

The petition worked, and Dr Townend had her first advocacy win.

Soon after, Dr Townend was contacted by a number of high-profile healthcare and legal professionals who were setting up Doctors for Justice, a new human rights organisation for healthcare workers. She joined on the spot as the GP representative.

The group’s founder and convenor is prominent psychiatric researcher Professor Louise Newman and other members include Adjunct Professor George Newhouse, the principal solicitor at the National Justice Project.

Dr Townend told newsGP the new organisation will advocate for human rights and high-quality healthcare for vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers, detainees and older Australians. Gender equity, violence in the home and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health will also be on the agenda.

‘Advocacy includes supporting those in need, and involves them in speaking about their own concerns,’ Dr Townend said. ‘As professionals we see advocacy as a central part of our role.

‘We work with all political parties and government agencies to develop better policies and approaches to support human rights.’

The organisation’s longer-term goals include providing a repository for relevant research, media releases and Federal Court cases, offering medico-legal training for healthcare practitioners and boosting knowledge of key human rights issues in the health professions.

The first issue on which Doctors for Justice is focusing is children in detention on Nauru.

‘Many doctors are concerned about what’s happening in that space and want to be involved,’ Dr Townend said.

The fledgling organisation has joined 30 non-government organisations (NGOs) in calling for detained children to be brought to Australia.

Dr Townend said there is a strong evidence base to show that children who have experienced more than four adverse childhood experiences are at much higher risk of major health issues such as heart attacks and diabetes.

‘Detention for children creates trauma. You get immediate mental health issues, including severe ones like resignation syndrome where the body shuts down,’ she said. ‘And, longer term, the complex trauma they sustain means their physical health will suffer.

‘It’s extraordinary how childhood trauma affects long-term physical and mental health, and the ability to function in society.’

In a recent article for MJA Insight, Dr Townend and Professor Newman argue that medical and health practitioners have both the responsibility and the opportunity to advocate for vulnerable populations and contribute to a human rights discussion.

‘Australia faces significant difficulties in ensuring access to health services and improving responses to the needs of marginalised and vulnerable groups, the majority of whom experience human rights abuses,’ they write.

‘There is a role for monitoring the implications of government policy and practice in the treatment of vulnerable groups and, in response, to develop a robust approach to the provision of expert opinion in these issues in the interests of improved healthcare delivery.’

Dr Townend told newsGP that human rights advocacy is about population health.

‘I fight very hard for my patients. But on a population level, it’s different. There are so many areas of inequity that affect our future society,’ she said.

Read the article here

Contact Doctors for Justice here