Boosting community healthcare

Donisha Duff

10 minute read

ANU College of Business and Economics alumna Donisha Duff is the Chief Operating Officer at the Institute for Urban Indigenous Health (IUIH). She is a Member of the College of Experts, Australian Research Council (ARC), and holds a number of Ministerial Board appointments. Donisha is also a founding member and Chair of the Stars Foundation Ltd, a not-for-profit providing school-based engagement programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls and young women. She has worked for the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association, General Practice QLD, Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council, as Ministerial Adviser to the first Federal Minister for Indigenous Health and positions with the Queensland and Australian governments.

After completing her Masters at The Australian National University (ANU), Donisha received the Roberta Sykes Indigenous Education Foundation bursary to Harvard University to complete a Summer Program in Business Management. In 2014, she was awarded National NAIDOC Scholar of the Year, and in 2015, the recipient of the Bob and June Prickett Churchill Fellowship. She has travelled to New Zealand, the United States and Canada to investigate chronic kidney-disease programs for Aboriginal First Nations people. 

In this interview, Donisha discusses the health sector for Indigenous communities in Australia and overseas, and how her ANU degree has prepared her for her career.

Q. Can you please tell us about your career path and what has led you to your current role at IUIH?

I was born and brought up on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. Being part of a community and working with them has really shaped my career path. I have worked in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health sector for over 20 years with a range of agencies including Federal and State government, non-government and the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Sector. I was also a Ministerial Adviser to former Federal Indigenous Health Minister Warren Snowdon.

For me, improving the socio-economic and health outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is not just a priority – it’s personal. It’s about making life better for my family and community, and the future better for my son.

I really enjoy the work that we are doing at IUIH: It’s leading edge, innovative, culturally grounded, contributing to evidence-based decisions and making an impact.

Q. IUIH leads the planning, development and delivery of comprehensive primary healthcare services to the Indigenous population in South East Queensland. What would be some success indicators for the IUIH Model of Care, and can the model be replicated across Indigenous communities in Australia?

South East Queensland has one of the largest and fastest growing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations in Australia. IUIH operates as a regional health provider model that integrates a range of community, social and primary health services for our urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. As an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander client, you can access the same range and quality of care across our 21 clinics.

We also work in partnership with mainstream health services, hospitals, and others to facilitate access to additional primary and tertiary care. All of our work is evaluated through our partnerships with universities. We survey our communities regularly to ensure we are meeting their needs. Attendance at our clinics and with our services and programs continues to grow each year.

However, it’s the personal stories that reinforce to me that our work is valued and life-changing.

We recently got a thank you note from a parent whose child had suffered a brain injury and was in the Children’s Hospital for extended rehab treatment. One of our services was able to support the whole family to stay in Brisbane for the duration of the treatment, assist with the discharge planning and support them when they returned to the community. 

The experience was seamlessly integrated for the family and allowed them to be together during this difficult time. In the background, our staff were connecting with external providers to secure accommodation and social support, and working with the hospital on a plan to transition care and support aids back into the home.

The IUIH Model of Care, including our programs and services, is designed to be replicated in any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. We work with other Aboriginal Community Controlled Health services to implement various programs and services in their clinic settings. 

For me, improving the socio-economic and health outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is not just a priority – it’s personal.

Q. Looking at the healthcare programs for Indigenous populations in Canada, New Zealand and the United States, what do you aspire to do for Indigenous health in Australia? 

It’s been a privilege to see how other First Nations in Canada, New Zealand and the United States are providing healthcare to their communities. There are so many similarities. What stands out is the strength and resilience of culture being at the centre of and driving their work. 

The Southcentral Foundation’s Nuka System of Care in Alaska, and what they have been able to achieve, has influenced IUIH. The Nuka model provides a relationship-based, customer-owned approach to transforming health care, improving outcomes and reducing costs.

I grew up in a remote community that had limited access to health care. Communities were passive recipients of care. I want to see better, consumer-driven care provided for our families and communities. This means developing a relationship, innovating and integrating services, and empowering our families to stay healthy.

Q. Which areas can the tertiary sector improve to build sustained partnerships with Indigenous communities in closing these gaps? 

The tertiary sector has a very important role to play in providing knowledge of and experience with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, people, organisations and communities.

Through our partnerships with multiple universities in South East Queensland, we currently achieve over 473 student placements across 27 disciplines annually.

These are not just health-related disciplines, but include IT, business, and even architecture. For us, this has been so beneficial to training our future workforce. Many students have returned to us for full-time work. They are familiar with our ways of working and have had some experience in our network working with our communities.

There is also more that we can do to ensure our existing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce have access to continuous learning and development opportunities, including what is offered through universities.

Completing my MBA at ANU has fast-tracked my career...The analytical thinking and business-planning skills I gained have been put to good use on many occasions.

Q. How did your Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree at ANU prepare you for your career? 

Completing my MBA has fast-tracked my career and, at a younger age, was a point of positive differentiation when securing Board positions. My summer program at Harvard University also helped.

The analytical thinking and business-planning skills I gained have been put to good use on many occasions while working within a not-for-profit organisation. Being able to clearly and concisely articulate the value-add of our programs and services has won over many negotiations and gained us increased revenue.

For my Board appointments, the strategic thinking and planning, business acumen and being able to analyse financial statements have been invaluable.

The ANU College of Business and Economics offers an extensive range of specialised programs. Click here for more details.