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On the need to hear and be heard: a call for leadership from NAIDOC 2023 award winner Kelvin Kong

Introduction by Croakey: Ear, nose and throat surgeon Professor Kelvin Kong, a Worimi man, was named NAIDOC 2023 Person of the Year last weekend and hailed for his work in addressing inequity in health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and particularly the devastating impact of chronic middle ear disease for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

He spoke this week with Croakey about the need for a national strategy to support hearing health, and urged leadership from the health and medical sector on support for a First Nations Voice to Parliament.

Fellow NAIDOC Week award winner Rachel Perkins also urged Australians to support a Yes vote.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney also spoke on the Voice at the National Press Club today, highlighting health and housing among the key areas she would be looking for advice on.

She called out the No campaign for bringing “Trump-style politics” to Australia and the media for not holding Voice critics like Pauline Hanson to account over an offensive comment.


Marie McInerney writes:

Ear nose and throat surgeon Professor Kelvin Kong, the 2023 NAIDOC Week Person of the Year, has no hesitation when asked what he would say if he could get the ear of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

Number one would be to raise the awareness of the impact of hearing loss on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, who experience the highest levels of chronic otitis media (middle ear disease) in the world, often affecting their health, education, and employment prospects for life.

Second is to urge proper resourcing – not one-off funding or program allocations, but a national strategy to address hearing issues that provides equitable access to culturally safe ear health care – way before families have to bring their kids in pain and distress to Emergency Departments.

The third, and he’s mindful of how this resonates nationally right now, is that such a strategy “listens to Indigenous voices and experiences in the space to try to find their solutions, because when you get mob on board, it’s such a powerful thing,” he tells Croakey.

What that would look like in action is commitment from government to say that “in ten years’ time, every kid born in Australia is going to have equal access to appropriate healthcare which is not going inhibit their learning and developmental milestones. That every child born in Australia has potential to realise their dreams and not be limited by their hearing.”

“I want this to be outcomes focused on what we’re trying to achieve, rather than saying we need X amount of dollars to do this,” he said

Family focus on health

Kong, a Worimi man who grew up on Country in Port Stephens on the New South Wales mid-north-coast, is Australia’s first identified Indigenous surgeon, though he always acknowledges the role and expertise of traditional healers (Ngangkaris) long before Western medicine arrived here.

Working on Awabakal and Worimi Country, he is associated with the University of Newcastle’s School of Medicine and Public Health and an Otolaryngology, Head and Neck surgeon working at Newcastle’s John Hunter Hospital and John Hunter Children’s Hospital.

His is a strong family health story. He credits his Worimi mother, Grace Kinsella, a registered nurse, for inspiring him and his older sisters, twins Marlene and Marilyn, to go into medicine. Their father, Kong Cheok Seng, a Malaysian Chinese man, is also a doctor.

Kong has written about growing up, his mother by then separated from his father, and having a lot of family coming to their home to have wounds dressed, sutures removed, bandages applied or for other health advice.

“That was fantastic as a kid growing up, because of the hub of activity in our house with cousins, extended family, and everyone coming,” he wrote, “And it wasn’t until my high school years that on mature reflection, I started questioning why people came to our house and did not go to the public clinic, hospital, or local doctor.”

“I started realising that our non-Indigenous friends didn’t experience the same pathways to health. And certainly, we didn’t experience the same path to health.”

Kong was hailed at the 2023 NAIDOC Awards as a “thought leader, trailblazer and visionary”, dedicated to addressing the disparity in healthcare and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in particular and for strengthening the Indigenous health and research workforce and pathways into specialist medical training.

He was thrilled to get the award but quickly played down his success when he spoke to Croakey: “Aboriginal people contribute to Australian society in amazing ways and I’m just one example, a drop in the ocean of the many different things people do,” he said.

Nonetheless, he has been blown away by the interest in his work as a result of the award, which has taken him beyond usual inquiries from health and Indigenous media outlets to ABC metropolitan radio and live commercial TV.

It’s given him a big mainstream platform to raise awareness particularly on the urgent need for better ear healthcare for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, of its critical importance for growth and development.

Otitis media is a problem for many communities, “but in our mob, we get it at an earlier age and we get it with a lot more severity and with increasing complications,” he said.

What that means is that kids are missing out. Missing out on hearing, on their education, on everyday interactions, on fun and laughter with their friends, and on their prospects for the future.

It’s heartbreaking, he says, when you see kids disengage with their learning or their friends because of a preventable hearing issue, and it’s “the greatest joy in the world” to be able to change that for them.

Otitis media is a particular issue in remote communities, where it is estimated to affect up to 70 percent of children. But while that’s a big focus of his work, in treatment, research and advocacy, Kong hastens to emphasise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face inequitable access to healthcare in all settings, including in urban areas like Newcastle where there should be no gap.

That inequity has many causes, he says: lack of bulk billing services, funding that has been systematically stripped out of primary healthcare and Aboriginal community controlled health organisations, lack of access to community nurses and nurse practitioners.

In a 2020 Lancet article, Kong described the severe hearing loss he had seen in one adult patient from untreated ear disease that had become chronically infected.

“I only had to look back at the patient’s health records to realise that his ear problems were diagnosed at an early stage; it was the lack of follow-up and absence of any continuum of care that had resulted in him passing unnoticed through the health system,” he said. “There is no doubt that this systemic failure was entirely preventable, and has effectively taken a good part of a normal life away from a human being.”

The solution, he told Croakey, is not to keep doing the same thing which is not working, “the solution needs to be innovative, it needs to be novel, and it needs to engage primary healthcare,” he says, adding that Australia may have the best hospital system in the world, “but when I see kids in Emergency for ears, it breaks my heart”.

“Emergency Departments are for emergencies, for heart attacks, strokes, car crashes. It’s not the place to send a vulnerable kid with hearing loss or discharging ears,” he said.

“We need to put the services in the right places, so families can go to their primary health practitioner to get these things sorted out earlier rather than going into an environment which can be very traumatic for a lot of people for a whole lot of reasons.”

Health sector leadership

It’s been a big week for Kong, on two fronts.

As well as being celebrated in the NAIDOC awards by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, he is “elated” that the Council of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) last week voted to endorse the Voice proposal at the upcoming referendum.

Kong is a “really strong supporter” of the Voice, though he acknowledges the awful irony that its granting or not will be determined by non-Indigenous people.

Calling on the health and medical sector in Australia to show leadership like RACS on the issue in the coming months, he has a clear message to colleagues and community.

“Number one is that we want to have some good robust discussion. Number two, we want to make sure you get the right information, not the propaganda. And number three, we need to have the conversations in a respectful, non-confronting environment,” he said, warning of the impact of lateral violence for community.

In terms of the debate, he urges that people “peel all the rubbish back”, to not get caught in deflections about ‘a lack of detail’ in the proposal when, like all referendums, this is “purely about a principle”, to recognise that First Nations people have a right to a Voice.

The scare-mongering that we’re seeing reminds him of the land rights debates around Mabo, threats that ‘you’re going to lose your backyard’, ‘they’re going to tell us what to do’.

“This is all just bigotry and we need to get rid of all of that,” he says, adding that the health sector is one that knows well how involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other diverse communities in their own health produces better outcomes.

“So by adding this layer to our Parliament, it’s actually going to make your Parliament stronger, it’s going to make the country stronger, it’s going to help us get the right direction.”

Receiving the award. Photo courtesy of National NAIDOC

Practical benefits

Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney emphasised the practical benefits the Voice would have for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in her major National Press Club address on Wednesday.

“From day one – the Voice will have a full in-tray,” she declared, saying she would ask it to consider four main priority areas: health, education, jobs and housing.

Talking about why the Voice was needed, Burney asked people to consider how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are around 55 times more likely to die from rheumatic heart disease than non-Indigenous people.

“These deaths are completely preventable with access to medical care, proper housing and clean running water,” she said.

On the need for an effective advice mechanism, Burney quoted the Gumatj Elder Yunupingu as having once said: “They do not listen because they do not have to.”

And she said her predecessor, Coalition Minister Ken Wyatt, had put it well when he looked back on his time as Minister and said: “On key areas of health and education, I saw no reflection of Aboriginal input into discussions that led to legislation being put to the Parliament and the party room.”

In her speech, Burney also criticised the ‘No’ campaign being run by the group called ‘Fair Australia’, saying it is “importing Trump-style politics to Australia”.

“It is post-truth and its aim is to polarise, its aim is to sow division in our society by making false claims, Including that providing advice to Government would somehow impact that fundamental democratic principle of one-vote, one-value,” she said, adding that that claim was designed to mislead.

Burney also criticised the media for its failure to call out One Nation MP Pauline Hanson for recently saying she once knew a “true black”.

“To describe the remarks as offensive and wrong would be an understatement, yet no-one in the media reported it, no-one called it out,” Burney said.

“Do not let the ‘No’ campaign get away with using Trump-style politics in Australia, do not let them divide us,” she urged.


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