Setting course for change

Dr Talila Milroy chose medicine because she’s passionate about Aboriginal social justice and hopes it will help her make a difference.

By Ara Jansen

When she left high school, Dr Talila Milroy thought becoming a journalist was the way for her to advocate for Aboriginal social justice. She certainly never thought she would become a GP.

Luckily for her patients, she didn’t enjoy the media and communications course and not long after, decided a switch to medicine, with a strong feeling it would better satisfy her goals around social justice, health care education and research.

“I thought about doing law, but it didn’t really interest me,” Talila says. “Plus, I was more engaged in science in high school. I also knew there was a huge discrepancy between the health of Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people. Medicine seemed like the place where I could make the biggest impact. I chose psychology as my major in my science degree which has worked in well.”

A Yindjibarndi and Palyku woman, Talila grew up in Perth, with family in the Pilbara. When she was 13, her mother got a job in Sydney, so she finished school there. 

Talila was the only Indigenous medical graduate in her 2015 class at the University of Sydney. She spent her intern and resident years at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. With a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery from the University of Sydney, Talila also has a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Psychology. 

She spent her undergraduate years working in the Faculty of Economics and Business at Sydney University, The Garvan Institute and Moreton Consulting. She gained further experience doing her rural general practice medical school placement in Roebourne and medical elective team at the Aboriginal Medical Service Redfern. 

Earlier this year she was awarded her Fellowship with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. She lectures at UWA’s Centre for Aboriginal Medical and Dental Health and is considering a masters and PhD.

A mother of three, Talila had her first child in her first year of university, her second just before starting her medical degree and her third after finishing the degree. 

Her return to Perth in 2019 to start working as a GP was for numerous reasons including being closer to family, her children spending time with their cousins and the general cost of living.

“Being able to use my position to help vulnerable members of our community – Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal – is an important part of my job.”

Talila is a GP at Jupiter Health Clinic in Spearwood. One of drawcards of being a GP is not only the flexibility of work but there’s a lot of advocacy work, advising and helping people navigate the health system.

“Being able to use my position to help vulnerable members of our community – Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal – is an important part of my job,” says Talila. “I enjoy providing comprehensive care and a needed service. Doing this work really aligns with my clinical goals and values. It’s challenging work.”

In May, Aboriginal health service South Coastal Babbingur Mia announced Talila’s appointment to their team. In a landmark appointment, she is the first Aboriginal GP to work there and possibly one of the first to work in the Rockingham and Kwinana district. 

“Babbingur Mia is where I feel like I will be able to make a difference. As an Aboriginal woman, we are providing an opportunity for culturally safe care. Cultural safety is important in seeing our clients in a holistic way that meets patient goals and needs,” she says. 

“It ensures that we as health professionals nurture and celebrate culture, family, emotions and spirit as much as we care about physical and mental health. It means that we provide the best and most comprehensive care and ultimately achieve better outcomes for the individual and the community.

“It also means a lot doesn’t need explaining so the patients don’t need to go through certain cultural and social factors as they are understood. We are providing a service with a deep understanding of where that person is coming from in a judgment-free way.”

Talila started with a fortnightly residency, which will expand as patient numbers grow. To date most of the women she has seen have come to her because in the past they have felt unheard or not been given the appropriate time. 

“A lot of that is more reflective of a system which doesn’t necessarily value time with patients. I also have a good knowledge of the services and benefits available to patients, so am able to help with that and to navigate the system.”

Talila says quality of care is a barrier for Aboriginal people seeking medical help. A long history of suboptimal care, judgment by authorities, health providers and hospital systems are just part of the complex puzzle. While she knows it takes time for the relationships to be rebuilt, there are many health professionals working to improve the situation.

“Having Aboriginal health professionals and providers creating culturally safe health care spaces definitely is part of the solution – but all health professionals and services should be able to provide this. People should be able to access any health care and feel safe.”

She’s definitely a glass half full person and a high level of empathy can at times affect her deeply when dealing with patients, their health issues and life stories. It’s balanced with a sense of efficiency, being able to prioritise tasks and having strong communication skills.

As part of encouraging more Aboriginal people to become involved in health care, Talila says she’s always happy to chat to people who show an interest. She speaks to more females but suggests that might just be self-selection in them seeking her out. Questions about being a mother are some of the most common, like how do you balance work and family in your reproductive years?

“I’m married and if it wasn’t for my husband and his support, I would have not gotten through it. He held down the fort as a stay-at-home dad when I did long days and shift work.

“When I decided to do medicine, there were definitely discussions about how it would look and work, knowing it would be long term. My hat is always off to families who have two parents working fulltime. It’s not easy and the cost of childcare is not conducive.”

Now, working more regular and known hours, Talila says family time is the priority. She enjoys cooking – particularly Lebanese food and the odd novelty birthday cake – and reading, often choosing medical humanities titles.

Talila is also particularly close to her grandmother and has been able to make up for the lost time of living in Sydney. She visits once a week and they chat, run errands or might draw together. Her grandmother has a particular love for op shops.          

“We talk about all sorts of things. I really value our time together and value her knowledge. Just hearing about her life experiences, which are so different from mine. I can’t have learnt about what she shares with me in any other way.

According to the Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet’s Overview of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health status in Western Australia, key facts for WA include: 

  • In 2016, around 14% of babies born to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers were of low birthweight (LBW), compared with 6.5% of babies of non-Indigenous mothers. 
  • In 2015-2017, after age-adjustment, the death rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in WA was 12 per 1,000. This was 2.1 times the rate for non-Indigenous people. 
  • For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people born 2015-2017 in WA, life expectancy was estimated to be 66.9 years for males and 71.8 years for females, around 13.4 – 12.0 years less than the estimates for non-Indigenous males (80.3 years) and females (83.8 years). 
  • In 2017, the leading causes of death among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were coronary heart disease, diabetes, intentional self-harm and lung and related cancers. 
  • In 2011, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in WA compared with those living in NSW, Qld and the NT, experienced the second highest rate of total burden of disease (BOD) (498 per 1,000), highest non-fatal BOD (193 per 1,000) and second highest rate of fatal BOD (305 per 1,000). 
  • In 2011, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experienced total BOD at 2.8 times the rate of non-Indigenous people, for fatal BOD, 3.6 times higher and non-fatal BOD 2.0 times higher.