Dr Justin Hunter was the 2020 winner of the RACGP Growing Strong Together Award that recognises an exceptional Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander GP in training. Justin is a Medical Officer in the Royal Australian Navy and has undertaken part of his GP training at an Aboriginal community controlled health service – an experience he recommends to other registrars.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I am a Wiradjuri man who grew up on Gumbaynggirr country in Coffs Harbour. My Aboriginal heritage is through my great grandmother, who was from Curra Creek near Wellington NSW.
I joined the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in 1991 and enlisted as a rifleman in the Army. From early on in my military career I was drawn to healthcare, and in the mid-1990s I became a patrol medic. Several years later I studied nursing through the University of Sydney, and was a registered nurse for 11 years, mostly working in emergency nursing.
In 2008 I deployed to Iraq, where I worked closely with medical professionals from various nations and experienced first-hand how my skills could save lives in a war zone. After recognising that I had not yet reached my full potential, I commenced a medical degree, graduating from the University Of Notre Dame in 2017 from the Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery program.
While studying medicine, I sat on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Advisory Committee, implementing policy that will assist with new Indigenous students’ learning pathways and current issues in Indigenous healthcare.
Why did you decide to study medicine and then train to become a GP?
My career in the ADF and the humanitarian aspect were strong drivers for me. I knew I wanted to be a healer, to help people from all walks of life, and with Navy, from all parts of the world.
I have a real passion for primary health care. GPs are a broad church – we see everyone from the community. I wanted that variety that is unique to GPs. We are pillars of the community.
You must be incredibly proud to be one of the first Aboriginal doctors in the Royal Australian Navy – why did you seek a medical career path with the Navy?
I am immensely proud. In my military career, the natural progression was for me to further my skills to become a physician assistant and then eventually a doctor, and study medicine. I had a friend and mentor in the Navy who encouraged me to transfer across to Navy in 2010. The Navy have been very supportive of me throughout my study and training. I wouldn’t be here today without them.
What attracted you to undertake part of your GP training in an Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service (ACCHS)?
As a proud Indigenous man, it was important that I give back to my community. I have always wanted to do this.
However, it wasn’t until I was treating a young Indigenous man in the prison system that I truly understood the importance. When talking to him and telling him I was also Indigenous, he looked at me questioningly and said, “I never knew people like you existed, that Aboriginal doctors existed”. It was then that I knew I was needed in community health care.
What has been the best aspect of training in an ACCHS?
The best aspect is working with and helping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on a daily basis. As an Aboriginal doctor there is no greater feeling than giving back to your people.
I have great mentors that have supported me at Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation. The setting is unique, we have home visits, specialist clinics and walk in emergencies, complex chronic care, as well as allied health on site.
Have there been any challenges training in an ACCHS?
Covid-19 has been a huge challenge for us all. Another aspect that I find challenging are the personal stories and sadness that so many of my patients share with me daily. However, whilst this is taxing, I feel very privileged that they are sharing things with me and hopefully it helps them on their healing journey. Another hard aspect is the rate of mental health issues amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
As an Aboriginal doctor, do you have any recommendations for other Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander doctors thinking about GP training?
Yes, do it. I would highly recommend GP training. Being a GP is an integral part of the health system both in the ADF and wider community. It is a truly rewarding and diverse pathway. We need more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors in all aspects in medicine, but especially at a community level.