Researchers and Aboriginal youth finding solutions to tackle type 2 diabetes in Central Australia

Helen Hughes Uncategorised

Research undertaken in response to the alarmingly increased prevalence of type 2 diabetes among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth across northern Australia has revealed that they are experiencing many barriers to effectively managing the condition.

A qualitative study, supported by Central Australia Academic Health Science Network (CAASHN) with a Medical Research Future Fund grant and led by Chief Investigators Professor Louise Maple-Brown and Dr Renae Kirkham, worked with Aboriginal youth in Central Australia to better understand their experiences of type 2 diabetes.

Research officer and local Arrernte woman, Ms Shiree Mack, was instrumental in engaging with young people in two Central Australian sites. 

The research found that Aboriginal youths with type 2 diabetes had limited understanding of condition, experienced associated feelings of shame and stigma and were not comfortable accessing the support that was available to them.

“These young people feel isolated by their condition and have suggested the benefits of peer support networks,” said Dr Kirkham.

Professor Louise Maple-Brown with a patient

“And they are not always accessing appropriate health care because the standard clinical pathways are not prepared for this rapidly emerging cohort of patients.”

Dr Kirkham says that over the last five years, the rise in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth diabetes has been “astronomical.”

The Diabetes Across the Lifecourse: Northern Australian Partnership recently documented more than 400 Aboriginal people under the age of 25 in the Northern Territory with type 2 diabetes – a condition more commonly experienced by adults.

“Typically, we see type 2 diabetes in adults rather than in children or youth, and especially not in young people at these rates,” she said. 

“And because we have this crisis of type 2 diabetes that no-one is prepared for, clinicians are unsure in what to do with these young patients when they present.”

Following the CAAHSN project, in 2020 the team received $3.87 million Commonwealth funding to co-design and evaluate culturally appropriate, youth-friendly models of care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people with type 2 diabetes across northern Australia, including the Kimberley and Far North Queensland.

This co-design project is working with young people, their families and health professionals to develop the appropriate support systems for improved management of type 2 diabetes. The project has already developed screening, management and referral guidelines for clinicians that are being shared and promoted across the north.

A distinctive feature of the project is consumer and community involvement as part of a continuous development and reflection feedback loop.

“The importance of having a co-designed project is that we get that input from the young people with type 2 diabetes and their families, as well as the health professionals working within that context,” said Dr Kirkham.

“We are co-designing models of care for each region which are context specific, so there’s a bit of flexibility although elements of each model will look quite similar. 

“It is important that the project builds upon the strengths of the communities and systems we are collaborating with. In some jurisdictions there are strategies that are already working well, so it is critical to evaluate these and trial them in other locations where applicable, keeping in mind there are many different cultures across the northern Australia, and many different ways of doing things that would be appropriate, so you need to work within those boundaries as well.”

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