Professor Peter O'Mara wants more Aboriginal people to consider career in medicine and health to help close the gap as he campaigns to 'raise the age'

Hope: Peter O'Mara, a GP in an Aboriginal community controlled health service, recently became a professor.
Hope: Peter O'Mara, a GP in an Aboriginal community controlled health service, recently became a professor.

PROFESSOR Peter O'Mara always had a knack for science, but by the time he left Cessnock High School he had an apprenticeship lined up in the Hunter Valley mines.

He never considered doing anything else.

"I thought it was the best job I could ever hope to get - and I enjoyed the work," he said.

"But in a way I had stereotyped anything else. I always thought being a doctor was something for rich people or doctor's children - I didn't even think to give that a go."

But after injuring his back in a car accident, he struggled to do the heavy physical work that the job demanded.

He decided to do a bridging course at the University of Newcastle, which helped him get into an arts degree.

"One day, I had a study day before exams and I put the TV on while I was making some lunch, and Ray Martin was interviewing the first two Aboriginal doctors to graduate from the University of Newcastle on The Midday Show," Professor O'Mara said.

"As I heard these Aboriginal doctors talking, they seemed like normal people, and I thought, maybe I could do that? I went to the school of medicine and got all their pamphlets and read everything I could about it.

"I got into medicine, and I got through."

He became a GP, and for the past 14 years, has worked as an Associate Professor at the University of Newcastle.

Now, the Paxton-raised Wiradjuri man is a professor.

Hope: Peter O'Mara, a GP in an Aboriginal community controlled health service, recently became a professor.

Hope: Peter O'Mara, a GP in an Aboriginal community controlled health service, recently became a professor.

Although he did not set out to become a role model, he is setting an example for the next generation of Aboriginal doctors, nurses and allied health professionals.

"As Indigenous people, we are 3 per cent of the population, but we are saturated in the health system at a higher rate because we have so many multi co-morbidities," he said.

"There is a natural trust between Aboriginal patients and Aboriginal doctors. They tell you the whole story so you can get down to what's going on for them and really make a difference in their lives.

"If we can enhance the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healthcare workforce, including in general practice, we can take strong strides forward in closing the gap."

He said Newcastle University was now recruiting for its successful "Miroma Bunbilla" program, an intensive week-long selection process that gives aspiring doctors the chance to prove their passion, aptitude and suitability to commence a medical degree.

"To get through our program, there is more hoops to jump through and, it is harder in a sense, but we hope it is more culturally-appropriate and gets better results," he said.

"It has been a big success for the university. We went from around 50 per cent of our first year students struggling to pass the first semester, and the next time we had one student fail one subject."

Role model: Professor Peter O'Mara, the director of the Thurru Indigenous Health Unit at the University of Newcastle, worked in the mines straight out of school. He said he had never considered studying medicine until he saw two Aboriginal doctors interviewed on TV.

Role model: Professor Peter O'Mara, the director of the Thurru Indigenous Health Unit at the University of Newcastle, worked in the mines straight out of school. He said he had never considered studying medicine until he saw two Aboriginal doctors interviewed on TV.

Professor O'Mara is also part of a national campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Australia from 10 to 14.

As Chair of the RACGP Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Faculty and a GP, he was pushing for therapeutic alternatives that supported prevention and early intervention activities that were culturally-safe.

"We do know that our people are grossly over-represented in the prison system, and once you head down that pathway, it's hard to turn your life around," he said.

"Over time, that has been a real disadvantage."

IN THE NEWS

This story How Peter O'Mara went from the mines to a professor, with a little help from Ray Martin first appeared on Newcastle Herald.

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