A program at the University of Newcastle is providing an alternative pathway for Indigenous medical students.

The unique Miroma Bunbilla Program, in Awabakal language meaning ‘permit … take care of’, is a week-long intensive selection process that creates space for aspiring Indigenous medical students through culturally endorsed assessment tasks.

The 2020 program has been adapted to align with COVID-19 standards—traditionally, students would be invited to campus to participate in the program, but this year it will be held online with one-off, face-to-face components taking place in Orange, Moree, Tamworth, Port Macquarie and Newcastle.

Darren Nolan, coordinator of the Miroma Bunbilla Program and lecturer within the University’s School of Medicine and Public Health, said the assessment tasks aim to be culturally appropriate and supportive.

“If medicine is their goal, we want to first of all enable and empower candidates to show they can do it—that they can overcome those barriers—and then show them the pathway to get there,” Nolan said.

Evidence has shown the traditional pathway to medical school through Year 12 academic results and entrance exams excludes many ambitious and talented Indigenous students from achieving their goals in the medical field.

Nolan said traditional pathways were “challenging” and not conducive to the creative or effective learning styles of Indigenous people.

“The current pathway requires students to sit a UCAT exam, and that is often a challenge with many students not speaking English as their first language,” he said.

“This forms the initial barrier where students are taken out of their home environment if they’re working or living in these regional areas.”

Assessment tasks within the week-long program are still based within the university curriculum, but are altered to reflect cultural learning practices and provide appropriate support.

“They will still have to complete traditional assessment tasks, as well as a presentation on their findings and a cultural assessment task—but all of this will be conducive to ways of yarning and a culturally endorsed environment,” Nolan said.

One of the standout features of the program is its dedication to each individual student, with the adoption of support scaffolds for candidates who don’t make it through to a medical program on their first application.

Those who aren’t offered a place in the program are supported through their next steps to achieving their medical goals.

Programs like Yapug at the University of Newcastle and TRACKS at the University of New England are steering aspiring students in the right direction, with the help of doctors and medical professionals working alongside them as tutors.

“Some of them may change their study habits, or join a pathway program that focuses on helping them in sitting in for the Miroma Bunbilla program and preparing them for the academic needs of the Joint Medical Program,” he said.

“It’s lovely to see the students realising that this is a passion they have, and to put in all of the hard work and energy.”

“Right now, we have a first-year student, and this was his third time through and now he’s succeeded.”

The success of the program is also rooted in the commitment by the Joint Medical Program to support Indigenous medical students.

Thurru, the Indigenous Health Unit that is part of the Joint Medical Program, focuses on further academic support through workshops or tutors, the provision of support for those coming off Country to participate, as well as graduating Aboriginal doctors.

Nolan said retention rates sat at around 50 per cent when the program first began, but in the last semester of 2019, the rate rose to 100 per cent.

The core program, aiming to create alternative pathways to medicine, has been running since 1990, but changed form in 2012 to make way for a more supportive scaffold.

Since the program began, it has helped train over 100 Indigenous doctors, with incredibly diverse and talented alumni to date.

“It’s exciting—we have students in every area throughout medicine now. From GPs to specialisations in a number of areas,” Nolan said.

Alumni include Dr Kris Rallah-Baker, the nation’s first ophthalmologist and Dr Kelvin Kong, a prominent Newcastle surgeon.

By Imogen Kars