Apartheid-style hospital access in the Northern Territory: UN Special Rapporteur on Health

Mark Metherall The Age Sydney Morning Herald June 5, 2010

NT Hospital Entrance???
NT Hospital Entrance???

Reports of an apartheid-style practice of separated entrances for indigenous people at some Australian hospitals has drawn criticism from a United Nations investigator.

Anand Grover, the UN's special rapporteur on health, has raised the issue of dividing screens at hospital entrances in a report critical of the Northern Territory intervention and indigenous health performance.

He said he had been informed that hospital authorities "reinforced stereotypes and prejudice … by installing screens and walkways to allow non-indigenous people to access hospitals without seeing indigenous families sitting at the entrance".

A spokeswoman for the federal Department of Health said the department was not aware of the source of Mr Grover's comments. She said that like any other institution, hospitals were subject to anti-discrimination laws.

Mr Grover stood by his statements yesterday but would not identify his source nor any hospitals with separate entrances. "I think it is very serious because it reminds me of apartheid," he said.

Paul Bauert, the president of the Australian Medical Association in the Northern Territory, said that in recent years the Royal Darwin Hospital had had a separate entrance where Aboriginal patients and their families could gather, as was their custom.

Asked if this had overtones of apartheid, Dr Bauert said Darwin had a reputation for presenting "a great front yard and a pretty appalling backyard". The separate entry had now gone as a result of a building redesign.

Dr Bauert said it had been a feature at some country hospitals to have a separate entrance for Aborigines, who were much more likely than other Australians to need hospital care.

The president of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association, Peter O'Mara, said he had not heard of race-based separate entrances but if they did occur, "it is pretty poor".

Mr Grover, who spent 11 days in Australia late last year to investigate access to health services, particularly by indigenous people and immigration detainees, said that the high level of ill health among indigenous Australians suggested that health spending was "insufficient to meet current needs".

This was the case even though spending on indigenous health was 17 per cent higher than for non-indigenous people. He said he had been provided with evidence that indigenous people encountered "a number of obstacles to access to health services, which the government has noted.

"These obstacles include language and cultural barriers, distance to services, lack of transportation, high service costs and Western-dominated models of care."

Mr Grover also expressed concern that the NT "intervention" had exposed a clear lack of constitutional protection of the rights of Australian citizens, irrespective of any perceived or actual benefit flowing from the intervention, and the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act was of "great concern" to the special rapporteur.

Source: The Age