Indigenous Australians die from heart disease at double the rate of other Australians, and in some areas, at triple the rate of the rest of the community, according to new data released by the Heart Foundation today.
At a national level, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are admitted to hospital for a heart condition 2.6 times more often than non-Indigenous Australians. Even more seriously, in most parts of Australia (33 regions out of 47) Indigenous Australians are hospitalised at rates above this national average. Indigenous women in the Northern Territory are hospitalised for heart conditions over six times more than other Australians.
The new data now available on the Australian Heart Maps is being released in Brisbane today by the Heart Foundation’s Aboriginal Engagement Manager, Corey Turner, and Health Equity Manager, Jane Potter, at the annual conference of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO).
“We cannot be complacent about the rates of heart disease being experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as heart disease is responsible for around one quarter of the gap in life expectancy compared to non-Indigenous Australians,” said Ms Potter. “In some parts of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, the hospitalisation rates are over four times higher than for non-Indigenous people living in the same region.”
Ms Potter said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were suffering the most. “In the Northern Territory alone, Indigenous women are being admitted to hospital with heart failure at six times the rate of non-Indigenous women in the Territory,” said Ms Potter. “If people are living in the same region, with the same level of access to services, then we’ve got to ask the question – why are the health outcomes so different?”
The Heart Foundation says for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, there is a historical distrust of mainstream health services: “This can mean that many will delay seeking medical help at their local clinic (if they have one) in time to prevent being hospitalised. They can also discharge themselves early against medical advice because they are so anxious about being in hospital, beginning a cycle of poor outcomes and repeat admissions.”
But there are broader issues too. “We know that heart health improves with a good education, secure employment, adequate housing and access to affordable healthy food,” Mr Turner said.
“We know that 24 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over 15 reported having run out of food in the previous 12 months – in remote areas, as many as 36 per cent. People in remote areas pay the highest prices for food, particularly fresh fruit and vegetables, which are harder to come by.
“It is no coincidence that many of the regions with the highest hospitalisations rates also have lower rates of literacy and employment, as well as housing issues. It’s hard to prioritise your health when there are so many other hardships. These areas have entrenched social and economic challenges and many also have higher rates of smoking and obesity,” Mr Turner said.
Around the nation (detailed tables follow):
Western Australia and the Northern Territory have the widest gap in hospitalisation rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians (almost 400 per cent). Western Australia also had five of the 10 regions with the widest gap.
Western Australia had the highest gap in death rates from heart disease, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the state dying from heart disease at nearly three times the rate of non-Indigenous West Australians.
Northern Territory had the highest rate of heart disease deaths among Indigenous peoples (175.1 per 100,000 people). This compares to NSW, which had the lowest rate (119.9 per 100,000 people). Victoria had the lowest rate of variation in hospital admission rates.
South Australia had the lowest difference in rates of heart disease deaths, but even there, Indigenous peoples had a 50 per cent higher risk of dying from heart disease than other Australians.
Partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and health professionals are critical to addressing the current inequities in heart health, Mr Turner says: “We want to work with communities, local Aboriginal Medical Services and health professionals, taking time to listen and understand the local issues that impact on heart health of communities. Our partners, including NACCHO, are key to this.”
The CEO of NACCHO, Patricia Turner, said, “We know that locally led solutions harness and build on local strengths and wisdom. It is these locally led solutions that will be the only way to successfully tackle these complex problems contributing to Aboriginal heart health outcomes.”
The Heart Foundation is working with eighteen hospitals across Australia as part of the Lighthouse Hospital Project, which aims to create culturally safe experiences for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples when they are admitted to hospital for heart problems.
Ms Turner says, “Ultimately, the Heart Foundation believes everyone should be able to live a full and healthy life, no matter where they live or what their cultural background.”