The Aboriginal Medical Service: A Centre for Ongoing Indigenous Activism

This semester, I have worked alongside the Aboriginal Medical Service (AMS) in Redfern to develop a webpage that shares the organisation’s history as a centre of activism for both equal access to healthcare and Indigenous rights. The project emerged as a direct consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact that this had on the organisation in reducing its face to face operating hours and increasing the community demand for medical assistance. Therefore, the AMS’ priorities were heavily funnelled towards responding to the coronavirus, meaning that its less pertinent administrative projects were understandably side-lined. The idea of creating an easy-to-navigate and informative webpage that would share the organisation’s history with the Australian public therefore emerged in an effort to alleviate the AMS from the task of updating its website. I also thought that creating a space that shares Indigenous voices and centres the organisation’s longstanding concern with Aboriginal healthcare and equality would contribute towards building community trust in a period of considerable isolation and uncertainty.

The Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern (2004)

To put it bluntly, my project aims to challenge the mainstream Australian conservative mantra that assumes “whiteness” as the default way of living. For instance, our national curriculum continues to be heavily influenced by European history and Western literature. Our federal government’s bushfire management plans are centred around Eurocentric understandings of the land rather than Indigenous knowledge. Our healthcare system continues to be obsessed with hypothetical deduction rather than acknowledging the role of spirituality and validity of bush medicine. Therefore, it is clear that our colonial past continues to haunt many of the powerful institutions in Australian contemporary society, continuing to centre “whiteness” whilst othering Aboriginal culture. My webpage counters this narrative by demonstrating how embracing traditional Indigenous constructs of health has played a major role in reducing Aboriginal mortality rates and supports “closing the gap” in healthcare, employment and education between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

UNSW Newspaper Tharunka Article highlighting the AMS’ responsibilities as more than just a centre for healthcare, yet also a centre advocating for Indigenous equality in housing, employment and challenging racial bias.

Whilst my project is not yet complete, the journey so far has been one of ups and downs. What has been very motivating throughout the process has been learning about the widespread impact and significance that a single, small-scale local organisation can have. Moreover, communicating with those currently central to the AMS’ operation and hearing their personal stories about engaging with Redfern’s local community and the differences they made in individual’s lives was extremely uplifting. What excites me, is that the webpage I produce will be the only location that exists to date where all of this information about the history of Indigenous healthcare, the AMS and the quest for Indigenous equality is collated in a comprehensive and interactive media. Further, making this a public webpage means that it will have far greater accessibility than previous journal articles, which often require institutional access and subscriptions, or local exhibitions, which are inaccessible to those who live out of the area. In terms of the challenges, I am still struggling with the development of this webpage, especially its aesthetics and the construction of more technically challenging aspects such as a timeline. I am hoping that over the coming weeks, I will be able to improve on this to shift my project from an academic text to a more engaging way of learning.

Beyond this unit, I hope to remain in touch with the Aboriginal Medical Service. As a neuroscience major and someone passionate about equal access to healthcare, I am hoping that I sustain this relationship with the organisation and will be able to volunteer as a member of the medical staff once I complete my degree. Throughout the semester, I have been consistently amazed by the social progress that the AMS has pioneered and am excited by the prospect that my webpage will be a space that celebrates these achievements.

History Matters – Challenging the Biomedical Paradigm

Mainstream medical practices in Australia are largely based on hypothetical deduction, with healthcare professionals treating symptoms and diseases using drugs, radiation and surgery. Conventional medical advice is therefore heavily influenced by Western values. This starkly contrasts the traditional medical practises used by Indigenous cultures that instead, appreciate a balance between the physical and spiritual being, relying on traditional healers, bush rubs and naturopathic medicines.[1]

Data released in the Australian Bureau of Statistics March 2020 report, however, indicate that the health status of Aboriginal Australians was amongst the worst of any group in developed nations.[2] The report revealed a higher prevalence of ill health and disability and a reduced life expectancy across the Indigenous community. A proposed explanation for this is derived from the lack of synergy between Government funded health initiatives, largely based on Anglo culture, and Indigenous constructs of health. Therefore, re-shaping our healthcare system to include services considerate of Aboriginal health beliefs has the potential to be immensely effective.

Consequently, the Aboriginal Medical Service (AMS) Redfern was established in 1971, partly to overcome the neglect and racism systemically engrained throughout Australia’s mainstream health services. The organisation was the first Aboriginal community-controlled health service in Australia, initially basing itself as a shopfront in Regent Street before moving to land donated by the Sisters of Mercy on Turner Street.[3] The service initially relied on volunteer doctors, nurses, nuns and medical students, however, it is now serviced by numerous paid healthcare professionals, including dentists, mental health specialists and general practitioners.

The AMS, however, is tightly funded and has access to limited resources which have been stretched to their limits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Less crucial elements of the organisation, such as their community administrative efforts, have understandably suffered. This is most evident when navigating the service’s website, which lacks information about the AMS’ current goals and historical relevance. For my project, I would therefore like to create a web page that reflects the positivity and progressiveness of the AMS and their significant contribution to Redfern’s local Indigenous community. To capture this, I want to coalesce the organisation’s public history, demonstrated through the inclusion of timelines and infographics with their more personal impact, shown through oral history interviews and profiles on key figures such as Mum Shirl, the service’s first Welfare Officer. At the current stage, it has been relatively difficult to maintain a consistent line of communication with the organisation, however I am hopeful that as I continue to build my rapport, conversations will flow more naturally and enthusiastically.


“Indigenous Health”. 2020. Australian Bureau of Statistics.

“Our History”. 2020. Aboriginal Medical Service Cooperative.

“Traditional Healing And Medicine – Cultural Ways”. 2019. Australian Indigenous Healthinfonet.

Foley, Gary. “Aboriginal Medical Service 1971-1991: Twenty Years of Community Service.” Aboriginal Medical Service Cooperative (1991): 1-12.

[1] “Traditional healing and medicine”, Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet, 2019. <>. Accessed 23 October 2020.

[2] “Indigenous Health”, Australian Bureau of Statistics, March 2020. <> Accessed 23 October 2020.

[3] “Our History”, Aboriginal Medical Service, 2020. <>. Accessed 23 October 2020.