People with Purpose: Culture, community, country

Posted on 08 Jul 2024

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Colleen Shae Sherry G1
Sherry Swanson, far right.

Adopting an innovative approach to technology has been a gamechanger for improving the health and wellbeing of First Nations people, says Sherry Swanson.

How would you describe your role at the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO)?

As the strategic project manager for the Wominjeka program, I manage a small team of brilliant, vibrant people and partners to shape and deliver Wominjeka.

My role encompasses a variety of responsibilities, ranging from project and product planning, execution and monitoring to stakeholder management, organisational change management and innovation and improvement.

Cultural competency – ensuring cultural safety and respect – is also my top priority.

My role is a dynamic blend of strategic planning, operational pragmatism and practicality aimed at enhancing the health and wellbeing of First Nations people through culturally sensitive and impactful projects. No two days are ever the same!

What are some of the key issue VACCHO is trying to help with when it comes to the health and wellbeing of First Nations people?

VACCHO is recognised as the peak representative organisation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing in Victoria.

On a national scale, VACCHO represents the community-controlled health sector through its affiliation and membership on the board of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO).

Our role is to support our members in the delivery of high-quality, culturally safe health and social services to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community across the state.

We do this by:

  • advocating on issues related to community health and wellbeing and strengthening support networks
  • increasing workforce development opportunities
  • partnering with government and mainstream health organisations to embed self-determination and culturally informed approaches across health services and systems.

Self-determination is at the heart of what we do and what we want to achieve.

Our vision is for culture, community and country to be embedded and respected in all healthcare settings and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have equitable health access and outcomes.

We work with the help of our guiding principles:

  • Culture and kinship: see the connection and build relationships
  • Our choice, our way: prepare for a self-determining future
  • Knowledge and innovation: build and add value on what has been done.

Our 2021–26 strategy On Solid Ground reflects our bold aspirations to bring about generational change through strength, innovation and sustainability.

To be able to reap the rewards for future generations, so that the boorai [babies and children] can grow up into healthy, connected, and strong people, we now need to focus on putting down strong roots.

Here are some of the critical issues impacting the health and wellbeing of First Nations people that we focus on.

Chronic disease prevention and management

We work tirelessly to reduce the incidence, prevalence and impact of chronic diseases such as cancers, diabetes, hypertension and renal disease and their effects, which disproportionately affect First Nations communities.

You must see our Beautiful Shawl Project which has seen a significant increase in the number of women attending breast screening.

Social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB)

Recognising the high rates of intergenerational trauma, mental health issues and psychological distress among First Nations people, VACCHO launched Balit Durn Durn in 2022.

Meaning “strong brain, mind, intellect and sense of self,” Balit Durn Durn is a centre of excellence, drawing on clinical, research and community expertise to coordinate best practice, ensuring there is “no wrong door” for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people seeking a culturally safe SEWB service.

Addressing social determinants of health

VACCHO understands that health is influenced by a range of social determinants, including housing, education, employment and social justice. We advocate for policies and initiatives that address these broader determinants to improve overall health outcomes.

Cultural safety and competence

Promoting cultural safety within the healthcare system is essential. We provide training and resources to ensure that organisations and healthcare providers understand and respect the cultural needs and values of First Nations people.

Youth and maternal health

Focusing on the health of mothers and young children is crucial for building healthy future generations. VACCHO provides and supports programs aimed at improving maternal and child health outcomes through early intervention and support.

Through these efforts, VACCHO aims to close the health gap between First Nations and non-Indigenous Australians, ensuring that all First Nations people can achieve their full health and wellbeing potential.

First Nations Aboriginal Indigenous women
The culturally inclusive Wominjeka program is using an innovative approach to technology to help deliver better health outcomes for First Nations people.
"It was an honour to be recognised for our efforts and achievements in leveraging technology to make a meaningful impact within our community."

Tell us about the Wominjeka project and why it has been such a game-changer.

Wominjeka is led by Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCO) and powered by VACCHO. It is distinguished by its culturally inclusive approach to governance and co-design and a pioneering spirit to do things differently.

The absence of a digital case management system for non-clinical services presents several challenges for ACCOs, who are required to record information in government systems that lack integration and cultural inclusivity, and that focus mainly on areas relevant to funding programs.

This has resulted in client data being stored in systems that are inaccessible for purposes beyond government mandates, hindering service delivery improvements and elevated outcomes through data insights.

To compensate, ACCOs have implemented hybrid practices, combining paper-based and internal IT systems to create client files they control. This piecemeal approach is laborious and case management practices are complex, with data often double or triple handled. It further complicates information security and compliance because client information is managed across government systems, internal systems, and hardcopy files.

Program Wominjeka (Welcome) is a unique technology ecosystem that enriches the support and care framework available to ACCOs.

It is a holistic and culturally safe approach to client management, ensuring service delivery optimisation, data security, and Aboriginal data sovereignty and governance, capturing significant client outcomes and contributing to Closing the Gap initiatives.

Wominjeka blends:

  • A client case management system (CMS)
  • Paperbark – an application for social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) services in the field
  • Message Stick – a worker's companion application
  • a MessageMedia SMS platform for appointment reminders, community-wide communications and crisis management communications.

The CMS provides immediate service delivery optimisation with a single digital client file and aligns with the wider objective of Closing the Gap in aiming to bridge disparities for First Nations Peoples.

The system has already been implemented by seven ACCO organisations in Victoria, transforming operations by saving 36,000 hours for every 100 full-time workers per year.

Learn more in this video on Program Wominjeka

Evening shots Social Media 143
Sherry (second from left) proudly shows off her award for Best Technology Achievement by a First Nations Person or Group alongside other category winners at the recent Infoxchange Australian Not-for-profit Technology Awards.

How did you feel when you won the Best Technology Achievement by a First Nations Person or Group award at the Infoxchange Australia Not-for-profit Technology Awards?

It was an exhilarating experience.

It was an honour to be recognised for our efforts and achievements in leveraging technology to make a meaningful impact within our community.

This award is a testament not just to the hard work and dedication of all those involved but also to the organisations that agreed to be among the first to transition and transform:

It celebrates the strength, resilience and innovative spirit of First Nations people and underscores the need to bridge the digital divide to empower all communities.

What's next for Sherry Swanson and VACCHO?

I’ll continue to implement Wominjeka for the rest of our membership (33 organisations), but there are hundreds of ACCOs across the country who are still using paper-based healthcare and spreadsheets.

VACCHO is leading the charge on accessible and culturally appropriate solutions, and it would be wonderful to see this approach extended as the new standard across the nation.

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