While Professor Hughes works on those long-term goals, she is also dealing with the reality of the present – and that is a crisis. Data from the Australia and New Zealand Dialysis and Transplantation Registry shows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are at least five times more likely to be treated for kidney failure than other Australians. The situation is likely to be much worse, as fewer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people access on-Country dialysis or kidney transplantation than the rest of the country.
“Australia provides excellent quality dialysis and excellent quality transplantation, but those treatments have been much more available and accessible to non-Indigenous Australians than they have for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” says Professor Hughes.
As deputy chair of the National Indigenous Kidney Transplantation Taskforce, Professor Hughes has worked to address those imbalances. The Taskforce, which completed its three-year program in late 2022, sponsored several sites around Australia where clinicians work with local communities to design ways to improve access to transplantation waitlists.
“It’s been wonderful, with lots of really important opportunities to make that difference regionally, but we must remember that there aren't very many transplant units in Australia and they’re a long, long way away for some people. In Darwin, our local transplant centre is 3,000km away in Adelaide.”
On Mabuyag Island and the near western region of the Torres Strait, Professor Hughes knows she has a great privilege, responsibility and opportunity to work with communities to enable this vision of addressing population health – her peoples’ health.
“My cultural acceptance within that community is important, as the project is such a community-led initiative,” she says. And while an initial focus will be to support dialysis on Badu Island, the bigger picture will be to address the causes. “We want to create a way for the region not to be reliant on dialysis in the future because we are also working strategically and purposely around health improvements for those factors that we know cause additive burdens to kidney disease.
“It’s wonderful that Flinders values us as First Nations peoples, as scholars and leaders within this academy, and that we can be supported to be able to deliver that health advancement in the way that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need and want.”