Orange Aboriginal Medical Services worked in new ways through the pandemic to keep both its community and its staff safe and healthy. It also launched a new men’s health project that, amid all the turmoil of the pandemic, delivered great outcomes for individuals and the community.
This article is published by Croakey Professional Services as sponsored content. It was created in collaboration with the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council (AH&MRC) of NSW, which funded the #OurHealthOurWay series.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Orange Aboriginal Medical Service (OAMS) placed great importance on staying open to ensure continuity of care for their clients and that it took care of staff too during such a challenging time.
OAMS is more than just a primary health care service, it is a cultural hub. So throughout all the challenges of the pandemic, it was important for the organisation to maintain connection to its community, said Chief Executive Officer Jamie Newman.
“Closing our service was never entertained,” he said.
OAMS is a community controlled, owned and operated organisation that has been providing medical and primary health care services to the local Orange community in central western New South Wales since 2005. It also offers dental outreach services to the surrounding regional centres of Bathurst, Cowra, Parkes and Forbes.
Like all health care services across the country, it had to change the way it delivers services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Knowing how important it was to stay open and in contact with its clients, OAMS acted quickly to implement COVID-safe measures.
Key to that was adhering to the NSW Ministry of Health COVID-19 directives and engaging in a regional response led by the Local Health District, which included a specific Aboriginal COVID-19 advisory committee that brought together all nine CEOs of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services in the region.
Information from the advisory committee was shared with OAMS team which, “as a collective”, then determined specific and proactive steps.
Flexibility was the key
Early in the pandemic, OAMS developed procedures for keeping clients and staff safe from COVID-19, starting with the receptionist, who would identify if the client had any symptoms. They would then determine if they could be seen via telehealth or, depending on COVID-19 case numbers, if they would need a face-to-face appointment.
There was an intercom at the front door for clients who came for face-to-face consults where they could talk to the receptionist before entering the building. This ensured that there was never more than the maximum number of people in the waiting room.
Telehealth was a “saviour” during the pandemic, according to OAMS GP Dr Hugh Stump who said it reduced the likelihood of staff and clients coming into contact with someone with COVID-19 and also meant that health professionals who needed to work from home could continue to see clients.
“Telehealth could be really good also for someone you have seen regularly who lives an hour away, and you need to follow them up in a week for a GP management plan,” Dr Stump said.
It was also positive financially. If the consult occurred via telehealth, OAMs staff could call, so there was no cost to the client.
Seeing clients via telehealth at the beginning of the pandemic gave OAMS the time and space to develop processes for ensuring the clinics were COVID-safe environments.
Once that was done, and when COVID-19 cases were low in the area, they could return to face-to-face consults — particularly important for clients who have complex health conditions.
Such flexibility and adaptability, based on case numbers, have been key throughout the year.
“If case numbers flare-up, we accept that there is a higher risk, so we might transition to telehealth or stricter screening measures at the door,” Dr Stump said. “Whereas if the case numbers drop, we can relax those rules a bit.”
During the pandemic, OAMS also operated a flu clinic, staffed by two nurses in an onsite demountable building — another essential operation to keep the community safe and maintain vital contact with clients that saw good uptake from the community, according to Dr Cheryl Chan, also an OAMS GP.
“It was pretty streamlined,” she explained. “So patients could come in, get their flu jab, then wait outside the demountable or in their car for 15 minutes (to monitor for any reactions) and then shoot off,” Dr Chan said.
The Respiratory Clinic referral pathway to the local hospital was also critical.
“The receptionist would be able to identify which patients needed a telephone consultation, a full examination at the respiratory clinic or the fever clinic out at the hospital … and triage as to how severe the symptoms were,” Dr Chan said.
Taking care of staff as well
As OAMS was finding flexible and innovative ways to care for its clients, it was also making sure that staff were taken care of during this difficult time and could work in ways that met their individual needs and circumstances.
One option was for support and administrative staff and health professionals such as GPs to work from home — flexibility that meant they didn’t have to choose between family or health concerns and work.
The staff personal leave policy was also amended to include a three day COVID leave provision to reduce the financial burden of COVID-19 related isolation or quarantine. OAMS also introduced two-week leave for staff with children if schools were forced to shut due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
“They didn’t want our people missing out and our staff didn’t deserve to miss out,” CEO Jamie Newman said of the Board’s approval for the leave provisions.
These initiatives, and others, were developed in collaboration with staff who met weekly to discuss how OAMS could continue to deliver high-quality care to their clients while making sure services were COVID safe for staff and clients.
Mr Newman is proud of the way OAMS makes decisions with staff.
“The decision to do anything is not just up to me,” he said. “Decisions are made with all staff, which is unique.”
A good story of engagement
OAMS also managed to launch a new men’s group project during the pandemic.
Men’s health is often not treated as a priority, but it needs to be, said Mr Newman of OAMS’ decision to take over an existing community hub facility, Coonabahloo Gibir, in a residential area of Orange for the next five years and to think about what could be done to better engage with the local men and families in the area.
For a start, the facility was not an inviting place and needed a facelift: it was “not conducive to the engagement of Aboriginal people, or anybody”, he said. Featuring an old weatherboard building and a fence you could pull down, it “reminded me of those old buildings on the mission”.
OAMS managed to secure funding to undertake renovations on the building and external spaces, enabling the facility to become more than just space where the community could meet.
The Men’s Group, OAMS, and the Orange Local Land Council, in partnership with TAFE, turned the renovation into an opportunity for 14 Aboriginal men to obtain building and construction certificates I or II.
Some of those who gained their certificates have gone on to do further study or training and been successful in seeking employment because of the qualifications.
“In all this turmoil with increased mental health, breakdowns in families, access issues, stress, and poverty increases, we had a really good story of engagement with Aboriginal people”, Mr Newman said.
This article was written by Dr Summer May Finlay and edited by Marie McInerney, on behalf of Croakey Professional Services. It was sponsored by the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council (AH&MRC) of NSW to share strengths and successes of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations in NSW.
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