A partnership between the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Services (VAHS) has created the nation’s first specialist eye clinic that sits within a community controlled organisation.

Servicing the First Nations community in Fitzroy, the clinic is delivering gold standard and culturally safe services to those in need of specialist eye care and holds brand new equipment purchased with funding from the Victorian Government.

VAHS has had a relationship with the Australian College of Optometry for two decades, which has enabled the expansion of optometry services within the organisation.

In the past year, VAHS has worked closely with the Eye and Ear Hospital and the College of Optometry to establish the new ophthalmology clinic.

VAHS General Manager of Operations, Gavin Brown, said VAHS has been a vibrant part of life for the First Nations community in Fitzroy and that this new clinic enables the organisation to continue the work they do.

“Fitzroy is our stomping ground and a spiritual home for a lot of people. We have a relationship with a few hospitals in the area, that have been built over those 46 years,” Mr Brown said.

“The services that are provided and the results are wonderful … It is an amazing program, and we have a lot of visiting specialists. This is a real model for us on how we can do things in our service and have the … relationships outside for the things that are beyond our capability in terms of surgery and so on.”

Many staff within the clinic are of non-Indigenous heritage, however the partnership has enabled teaching and better understanding of how to deliver a culturally safe service.

Dr Rosie Dawkins is a non-Indigenous woman working as the clinic’s Consultant Ophthalmologist.

“Rosie is our ophthalmologist … she has a wonderful understanding. It is wonderful when you get non-Aboriginal people who are the right fit, and have that respect and have a comprehension of our culture and way of life and have respect for community controlled health organisations as well,” Mr Brown said.

Dr Dawkins noted the power of the clinic within VAHS.

“It’s shifting power … the community is in control of who comes, how the clinic runs, and the doctors are there to meet the health needs of the community, as the community sees fit,” Dr Dawkins said.

The Consultant Ophthalmologist said the relationship between VAHS and the hospital has enabled a better understanding of the community.

“For the hospital, people have often been thinking … why can’t we get people from Fitzroy to come to the hospital? … But the question is, why do we expect people to come to these institutions?

“The reasons for people unwilling to go to mainstream services, and not everyone is … are well understood, but we need to do something about it. But we can only do that through partnership, so the [Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation] must be willing and the hospital must be willing.

“We’re hoping that this kind of model of gold standard care can apply to everything at the ACCHO and can be a model that other hospitals and ACCHOs could use.”

Mr Brown said the clinic is already having a visible change within community.

“It is very rewarding because a lot of eye health issues, as people know, are curable. You see within a week that someone has their sight back or improved sight – you see the changes it makes in our people’s lives,” Mr Brown said.

With 46 years of service under their belt, VAHS hopes to keep providing community with extensive, culturally safe services that not only maintain healthy lifestyles, but inspire and empower the community.

“The community controlled organisations have been a big part of our lives [since the 1980s] so we are connected. We are so fortunate to have that era of empowerment and building in our community,” Mr Brown said.

“Times change and nowadays whilst we still have that political voice, it’s a lot more intricate in running a large service. We are always striving to improve and we’re always striving to maintain that voice that can be out there with people and government.”

By Rachael Knowles