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Original Research

Using cultural immersion as the platform for teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health in an undergraduate medical curriculum

Submitted: 21 May 2014
Revised: 18 December 2014
Accepted: 28 February 2015
Published: 6 August 2015

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Author(s) : Smith JD, Wolfe C, Springer S, Martin M, Togno J, Bramstedt KA, Sargeant S, Murphy B.

Citation: Smith JD, Wolfe C, Springer S, Martin M, Togno J, Bramstedt KA, Sargeant S, Murphy B.  Using cultural immersion as the platform for teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health in an undergraduate medical curriculum. Rural and Remote Health (Internet) 2015; 15: 3144. Available: (Accessed 19 October 2017)


From left to right:
Shannon Springer, Janie Dade Smith, guest, Mary Martin, John Togno, Narelle Urquart, Katrina Bramstedt, Narelle Jackson, Sally Sargeant.
Front L – Christina Wolfe and 4 dancers – Luther Cora (centre) Dancers.

Introduction:  In 2011 Bond University was looking for innovative ways to meet the professional standards and guidelines in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health in its Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) curriculum. In 2012 Bond piloted a compulsory cultural immersion program for all first year students, which is now a usual part of the MBBS program.
Methods:  Three phases were included – establishing an Indigenous health group, determining the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educational content based on the professional standards and developing nine educational sessions and resources – as well as significant administrative processes. The cultural immersion was piloted in 2012 with 92 first year medical students. Following refinements it was repeated in 2013 with 95 students and in 2014 with 94 students. A comprehensive evaluation process was undertaken that included a paper-based evaluation form using a five-point Likert scale, as well as a confidential talking circle evaluation. The response rate was 95.4% (n=271, pooled cohort). Data were entered separately into SPSS and annual reports were written to the Faculty. Descriptive statistics are reported alongside themed qualitative data.
Results:  The three combined student evaluation results were extremely positive. Students (n=271) strongly agreed that the workshop was well organised (M=4.3), that the facilitators contributed very positively to their experience (M=4.3), and that they were very satisfied overall with the activity (M=4.2). They agreed that the eight overall objectives had been well met (M=3.9–4.3). The nine sessions were highly evaluated with mean ratings of between 3.9 and 4.8. The ‘best thing’ about the immersion identified by more than half of the students was overwhelmingly (n=140) the Storytelling session, followed by bonding with the cohort, the Torres Strait Islander session and learning more about culture. The item identified as needing most improvement was the food (n=87), followed by the accommodation (n=65).
Conclusions:  The use of immersion in the early part of a cultural awareness program for medical students provides an extremely valuable platform from which to launch more detailed information about the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia and its impact on the current health status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Doing this in a safe, supportive cross-cultural environment with highly skilled facilitators is essential. Key to success is strong leadership, commitment and support from Faculty level, a structured educational program and educating all staff and students about its importance throughout the journey.

Key words: Aboriginal history, Australia, cross cultural education, cultural safety, medical education.

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