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Australian Aboriginal traditional health care versus Western medicine

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Australian Aboriginal traditional health care versus Western Medicine


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            Western medicine is poorly compatible with the beliefs of Australian Aboriginal health beliefs. In specific, Western medicine lays more emphasis on treating diseases contrary to Aboriginal traditional medicine which details the cause of the disease as well as responding to issues related to the disease at “personal, family and community” level (Maher, 1999, p 234). Elliot, Aitken and Chaboyer (2007, p 172) mentions that “the Aboriginal view of health incorporates notions of body, spirit, family and community” thus it is a holistic approach to health care.

On the other hand, Western medicine is said to be scientifically based with no notion of spiritual healing thus it is not considered to be holistic. With such a perception, merging traditional medicine with Western medicine in Aboriginal healthcare is quite a challenging issue. This is particularly so for Western practitioners who may not be flexible about cultural differences and beliefs.

This paper discuses the possibility of applying both the traditional healing techniques and western medicine among the Australian Aboriginals without either of them appearing superior to the other.

Overall, the challenges experienced by healthcare professionals in complementing these two domains of healthcare are highlighted with the views of Aboriginal People concerning western medicine also being discussed.

Australian Aboriginal traditional health care versus Western Medicine

            Australian Aboriginals have specific beliefs as far as health and medicine is concerned which are contrary to Western medicine. For instance, Aboriginals believe in using traditional medicine and that Western medicine has potential to cause sickness and that hospitals are death places. It is also among the Aboriginals that it is important to consult traditional healers for healthcare. To aboriginals, illnesses emanate from spiritual beings some of them being ‘payback’ (Elliot, Aitken & Chaboyer, 2007). Failure to understand these beliefs which are precious and respected among the Aboriginals are likely to make the work of healthcare professionals difficult. To a western healthcare professional, adherence to the Aboriginal beliefs may imply a non-compliance attitude towards medication hence making it difficult to deliver healthcare to the Aboriginals. For healthcare professionals to successfully complement traditional healing with modern scientific-based medicine, they must realize that there is a cultural basis for every existent treatment and thus Western medicine has incorporated a cultural approach. Furthermore, western medical practitioners should realize that even the evidence-based practice does not have an inherent efficacy and thus traditional therapies should not be merely rejected (Individual and Population Health, 2007).

Devanesen (2000) cites that western healthcare system has been superimposed traditional systems inherent to the Aboriginal people of Australia. Despite this interference, traditional Aboriginal healthcare practices have survived especially in the Northern territory. It has been noted that despite the Aboriginal people in the Northern territory having incorporated Western medicine in their healthcare system, they have not abandoned the practice of seeking to understand the cause of diseases. This portrays how much Australian Aboriginals value a holistic approach to health and wellbeing. The Warlpiri tribe is well known to have conserved the traditional approaches to health especially the role of traditional healers (ngangkayikirili) who inherit the healing power from the ancestors. Healing may be achieved through sucking the patient or massaging the sick person followed by ritual songs (Devanesen & Maher, 2003). In the current scenario, Naomi presents a nurse who respects the beliefs of the Aboriginals despite the fact that she is not an Aboriginal. She seeks the views of the patient and when the patient mentions the possibility of seeking healing services from a traditional healer, Naomi does not object to this. In this scenario, Western medication is only made as a suggestion by Naomi but the patient has an upper hand in choosing the kind of healthcare to be administered. This shows that Western medicine can be used to complement traditional Aboriginal medicine.

Striking a balance between traditional medicines with Western medicine is very important in attaining wholesome and quality healthcare for the Aboriginals. Ignoring either of the two approaches may not lead to full realization of good health since each of the approaches has its strengths as well as weaknesses. It is for instance observed that Australian aboriginals have poor cancer outcomes characterized by high death rate and low survival rate. Upon examining the causes of this trend, Shahid et al (2009) identified that Aboriginals (in Western Australia) rarely participate in cancer screening programs thus they are diagnosed at a later stage. In addition, the Aboriginals have a poor compliance to cancer treatment due to a higher preference for traditional healthcare approaches. These authors also indicate that the poor outcomes are as a result of wrong beliefs that cancer is a contagious illness thus most people fail to benefit from cancer preventive and curative services. On the other hand, Western healthcare practitioners must acknowledge traditional medicine in order to realize positive outcomes in healthcare delivery. In a different study, Shahid et al (2010) identify that traditional medicine is used as part of cancer treatment among the Aboriginals with patients who seek such medicines wanting to feel connected with their land and overall heritage. In fact, Shahid and colleagues (2010) recommend that health care providers “should accept that traditional healing can be an important addition to an Aboriginals’ healing complementing western medical treatment regimes, ”( para 4).

Even as attempts to complement traditional Aboriginal medicine with Western medicine ensue, an evident theme is that the concept of holism as maintained by the Aboriginals must prevail. The holism concept is appreciable in that its physical component largely incorporates the Western approach to healthcare where the main focus is to cure the illness. At least the Australian Medical Association (AMA) acknowledges incorporation of holism in delivering healthcare to the Aboriginals (Lutschini, 2005). Lutschini (2005) mentions that despite most of the Australian Aboriginal health policies recognizing a holistic approach, this is rarely practiced due to poor understanding of the holistic concept. The holistic approach is missed by policy makers and implementers most of whom have a western approach to healthcare delivery. On this note, it is important for Western medicine practitioners to be culturally flexible to acknowledge the role of holism in Aboriginal healthcare system.


In delivering healthcare to the aboriginals, it would be wise for healthcare providers to consider leaving a case to be attended with traditional practices. It is also observed that Aboriginals may use a sequential approach to seek medical assistance where Western medicine follows after traditional practices. In another instance, Maher (1999) cites that the traditional forms of treatment may go concurrently with western practices. With a realization that these are the potential approaches to healthcare among Aboriginals, it would become easy for healthcare professionals to integrate traditional practices with modern medicine without conflict. Failure to identify such or to explain the possible approaches to Aboriginal patients is bound to result to ineffective healthcare delivery. Conclusively, it is arguable that traditional Aboriginal medicine can be blended with modern medicine with minimal difficulties.


Devanesen, D. D. (2000). “Traditional aboriginal medicine practice in the Northern Territory of Australia.” Better Science, Policy and Services for Health Development. International Symposium on Traditional Medicine: 11-13 September 2000.

Devanesen, D. and Maher, P. (2003). Traditional Aboriginal health practice in Australia. Science Across Cultures: the History of Non-Western Science, 3: 175-189, DOI: 10.1007/0-306-48094-8_9

Elliott, D. Aitken, L. and Chaboyer, W. (2007). ACCCN’s critical care nursing. ISBN 0729537706: Elsevier Australia.

Individual and Population Health. (2007). Aboriginal medicine and healing practices. Retrieved 11, Aug. 2010 from http://www.med.uottawa.ca/curriculum/iph/data/Aboriginal_Medicine_e.htm

Lutschini, M. (2005). Engaging with holism in Australian Aboriginal health policy – a review. Australia and New Zealand Health Policy, 2:15 doi:10.1186/1743-8462-2-15.

Maher, P. (1999). A review of ‘traditional’ Aboriginal health beliefs. Australian Journal of Rural Health, 7(4): 229-236.

Shahid, S., Bleam, R., Bessarab, D. and Thompson, S. C. (2010). “If you don’t believe it, it won’t help you”: use of bush medicine in treating cancer among Aboriginal people in Western Australia. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 6:18 doi:10.1186/1746-4269-6-18

Shahid, S., Finn, L., Bessarab, D. and Thompson, S. C. (2009). Understanding, beliefs and perspectives of Aboriginal people in Western Australia about cancer and its impact on access to cancer services. BMC Health Services Research, 9:132 doi:10.1186/1472-6963-9-132

Cite this Australian Aboriginal traditional health care versus Western medicine

Australian Aboriginal traditional health care versus Western medicine. (2016, Aug 07). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/australian-aboriginal-traditional-health-care-versus-western-medicine/

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