Focusing on Aboriginal Oral Health

When Eliza Collins (BOralHlth (2017), BOralHlth (Hons) 2022) witnessed the oral health disparities that exist for First Nations people in Australia, she decided to work within those communities.

As an oral health therapist and educator at Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative in Mooroopna, outside Shepparton, Eliza Collins never knows what her working day will look like – and that’s exactly how she likes it.

Eliza graduated with a Bachelor of Oral Health in 2017 and then practised general dentistry for children and hygiene treatments for adults. After taking a break to travel, she returned to Melbourne as the COVID-19 pandemic began taking effect in the city.

At this time, Eliza decided to do her honours year. After completing that and working in private practice for two years, she followed her interests and moved to Mooroopna to work with Rumbalara.

She spends most of her week doing outreach and visiting schools and kindergartens to promote good oral health. She also supervises oral health students.

“In high school I enjoyed learning about social determinants of health and about the disparities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal health status and life expectancy. I also learned about colonisation history and how that can be reflected in the health status of people today,” says Eliza.

“I grew up in a rich white neighbourhood in Melbourne and my experiences of visiting the dentist were good. But there is so much negative talk about Aboriginal communities and that increases the notion of shame so people feel shame and embarrassment when they visit a dental practice.

“It’s important to be less judgemental, to know the experiences people may have had because they are Indigenous, and to approach their dental appointment with that in mind.”

In her role at Rumbalara Aboriginal Co-operative, Eliza has worked hard to build trust with patients who may often feel intimidated in the clinical setting. Based on research she did during her honours year, she’s adapted her professional approach to put them at ease and ensure they get the oral healthcare and treatment they need.

“People don’t feel culturally comfortable in medical practices and I think some of that comes down to the practitioners themselves and how they interact, the kind of language they use and their body language,” says Eliza.

“When I see a patient, if they express any embarrassment, I tell them the first step is that they turned up to their appointment. If they just want to talk during that first appointment, that’s fine. I ask them to tell me what they want from the appointment and I try my best to deliver that.

“I want to build their trust and if I can make a positive difference to a person’s dental experience, I’m happy.”