Winnunga Nimmityjah - A model community health care service

Monday, 8 September 2014

On August 26, a number of members of the Alliance's staff were warmly welcomed to Winnunga Nimmityjah, the Aboriginal Community Controlled Primary Health Care Service in Narrabundah, ACT, by Julie Tongs, its CEO.

Under the leadership of the late Olive Brown, Winnunga was established in 1988 as a temporary medical service for the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. It has since grown into a primary health care service which last year saw over 6,500 clients.

Covering a large area including the greater ACT region and the South Coast of New South Wales, Winnunga provides a pivotal service to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in those areas.

Many of Winnunga's clients are the most marginalised in society, often having little or no money, limited access to food, and experiencing child protection and, in some cases, probationary issues. It is astonishing to know that Winnunga currently has 853 clients on its books with mental illness.

Julie Tongs OAM, who has been CEO of Winnunga since 1998, has more than 30 years' experience in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs and has received a number of honours including the ACT Governor General's Centenary Medal, the ACT Indigenous Person of the Year and the Medal of the Order of Australia. Julie's vision as CEO of Winnunga is for the service to be a national leader in the provision of holistic primary health care - a vision that has been implemented through the multidisciplinary comprehensive primary health care that Winnunga provides to its clients.

"Winnunga is not just about doctors and nurses," Julie says when describing the nature of its services.

Dr Nadeem Siddiqui, Chief Medical Officer at Winnunga, agreed that many standard general practices could be "too GP Centric", particularly for “complex clients with complex needs.” Trained at Cambridge, UK, as a GP and recruited to Winnunga from Qatar where he was developing primary health care services, Dr Siddiqui is a strong proponent of the holistic approach to primary health care that Winnunga provides.

Winnunga's services include a needle exchange program, a mental health nurse, audiologist, a dentist and two Aboriginal dental assistant trainees, dieticians, a dermatologist, gynaecologist, four midwives, psychiatrists, an opiate health nurse, Aboriginal health workers, and Bringing them home workers who provide special support for members of the Stolen Generations. The centre also works in conjunction with agencies such as ACT Housing, Legal Aid and Centrelink and, when necessary, arranges client transport.

Though predominately providing health care services to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, 18 per cent of Winnunga's clients are non-Aboriginal with many older local people using the facility's health services. Similarly, Winnunga has both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal staff who work together to best service the needs of their clients.

"Reconciliation is practised at Winnunga every day," says Julie.

However, despite providing such important services to the community, Winnunga, like numerous other community controlled health organisations, faces funding uncertainty after June 2015. If a GP Co-Payment is introduced, Winnunga will continue to bulk bill, fearing that extra cost to its clients would deter them from accessing primary health care services.

Winnunga provides an exemplary comprehensive patient-centred primary health care service of the kind that should be available in many more remote areas that are currently under-serviced. It is of vital importance that national, State and Territory Governments continue to support organisations like Winnunga, enabling them to provide essential, holistic primary health care services to all Australians.

For more information about Winnunga Nimmityjah go to http://www.winnunga.org.au/

For more information about the National Rural Health Alliance visit http://www.ruralhealth.org.au/

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