Australia’s first Indigenous cardiologist, Associate Professor Luke Burchill is striving to make a difference in cardiovascular health for his people and those living with congenital heart disease.

The Professor is a member of the Victorian Aboriginal community, with ties to Cummeragunja Mission on the banks of the Murray River.

“I am Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung, a very proud member of those two nations,” said Professor Burchill.

“I grew up in Mooroopna, I attended local primary school and local high school before getting into medicine and then becoming a cardiologist.”

Studying medicine at the University of Melbourne, Professor Burchill pursued a PhD. Afterwards, he travelled to the United States and Canada to undertake postdoctoral fellowships for a decade.

With a unique perspective, Professor Burchill brings together the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and congenital heart disease communities.

“People often say to me, you lead research in congenital heart disease and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cardiovascular research—they are completely different! But actually health equity is a common concern that bridges those two communities and I think there is learning to be shared across those communities,” he said.

Working in the medical space, Professor Burchill is reminded daily of the health inequalities that face his community and has dedicated himself to ensuring his research centres around equity.

“Every week I am reminded of the need for equity in Indigenous heart health outcomes. We see our people coming to hospital with heart attacks and strokes a decade earlier than non-Indigenous Australians.”

“When we look at all of the conditions contributing to the so-called health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, it’s cardiovascular disease and stroke which are the largest contributor,” said Professor Burchill.

“I’m interested in the question of why? It’s not good enough for us to continue to grow a body of research that is simply about quantifying disadvantage.

“I think it’s my responsibility as an Aboriginal person to really shift the focus to more solutions and strength-based lines of investigation. My research is now about the why. There’s not a lot of research that really tries to unpick what the basis is for these differences.”

Professor Burchill particularly noted the space for Indigenous knowledge in medical practice.

“Indigenous expertise and Indigenous knowledge systems, and Indigenous excellence, is not only for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities. Although that may be our primary focus, there is so much that can be translated for the benefit of non-Indigenous Australians,” he said.

“There’s a call, a unified call, for greater Indigenous knowledge and expertise and Indigenous voices to be heard in forging a new Indigenous public health agenda.”

“An Indigenous public health agenda that is based on equity and which is national in scope but regional in focus.”

With voices of regional communities needing to be heard, Professor Burchill stands behind the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

“For me, I know not everyone in the community supports the Uluru Statement, but I worked with Megan Davis on some really ground-breaking work with the [Royal Australasian] College of Physicians around constitutional reform and Indigenous empowerment in that organisation,” he said.

“What I take from my learning from Uluru Statement is that we can’t place Indigenous people and leaders in compromising positions where they are supposed to be the voice for all things Indigenous.

“We are diverse community with diverse needs and perspectives. I think the Statement so far is our best opportunity to enable diverse Indigenous community voice to be heard.

“Equity is what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need. The problem with our approach to public health is that it takes quite a utilitarian approach to policy and often comes down to making decisions based on the greater good.

“This approach doesn’t work for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people because it fails to take into account equity and how vulnerability differ for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and why.”

Professor Burchill’s journey to becoming Australia’s first Indigenous cardiologist has marked his name in history. However, it’s also been a deeply personal journey.

“My great-grandfather was Indian, and he married my great-grandmother who was Aboriginal and these people loomed large throughout my life,” said the Professor.

“He studied medicine at the University of Melbourne right back in the 19th century. In some ways I wonder am I completing some sort of destiny based upon my ancestor’s achievements? I often feel, and my family tell me … I’m in his footsteps.

“In my early education it wasn’t reinforced that I had the potential to achieve what I have today. It is only because I have family members that really encouraged me to go for it, that’s the only reason I’m here. If it was reliant on the mainstream education system, I wouldn’t be where I am.

“Coming back to Australia after [eight or nine] years overseas and being able to engage in these issues particularly around Victorian Aboriginal health, I feel really humbled. I feel very fortunate. But I also feel like I am reconciling some of my past with some of my future.”

By Rachael Knowles