ACT News

Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service to target obesity in 2016

An obesity clinic will be introduced to Canberra's primary Aboriginal health service next year in an attempt to stem weight problems and diabetes rates in the community.

Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service will launch the clinic as part of a strategy to encourage patients to adopt healthier eating practices.

Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Services chief executive Julie Tongs said many clients faced comorbidity, or ...
Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Services chief executive Julie Tongs said many clients faced comorbidity, or mental health issues combined with weight, alcohol or drug problems. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

During the last financial year, dietitian and diabetes educator visits made up 563 of the 2108 allied health consultations at Winnunga, while another 1261 visits were made to the smoking cessation and healthy lifestyle officer.

Chief executive Julie Tongs said targeting obesity and nutrition was not a simple process, with many clients suffering comorbidity, or weight gain combined with mental health issues.

"There might not just be mental health, but also cases of alcohol or drug addiction," she said.

Ms Tongs said low-nutrient fast foods were often a more attractive option for many people who were both time-poor and on low incomes.


The service's awareness programs and obesity clinic would cater for people of all ages, with a particular focus on children to encourage healthy eating habits early.

"Sometimes it's easier to eat takeaway or fast food, and often cheaper, but we have to get out the message that you have to think about nutrition and vegies," she said.

"For us, it's about preventing the kids from getting [the health problems] in the first place. We know we've got to manage the cases we've already got, but we also need to try and prevent it at that age."

This year was a tough for Winnunga, losing board members and long-term Aboriginal health advocates Aunty Judy Harris and Mary Buckskin.

A major restructure also saw the service replace their medical staff with full-time GPs after years of a part-time doctor roster.

Ms Tongs said the change had caused some consternation among patients, but the reform had been planned for three years, with the management considering having full-time GPs up to 18 years ago.

"There were some big decisions that the board and I made, and some of the decisions were made three years ago," she said.

"It's been a fairly challenging year."

The service continues to grow despite the challenges, however, with Winnunga posting a $385,160 surplus in the 2014-15 financial year, up from $214,924 in 2013-14.

There were a total of 46,882 consultations and encounters with clients during the last financial year, 3000 more than in the year before, with 80 per cent of clients were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.

Ms Tongs said the service was not exclusively for Aboriginals, but that its association with the community helped build trust and ownership.

She said liaising and breaking down barriers with police and other groups would also be an essential part of the service's work in 2016.

"[The police are] really keen for our people to see them in a positive light, and so am I, because I want to see better [futures] for our kids, and the sooner we break down the barrier, we can start to build trust."