On the eve of the Indigenous Health Special Issue of the Medical Journal of Australia, in partnership with the Lowitja Institute, Professor Kelvin Kong was a guest on the MJA podcast to discuss his work with ear disease, the importance of representation and cultural safety, and his optimism for the future of Indigenous health care.

Professor Kelvin Kong is a Worimi man, working on Awabakal and Worimi Country at Newcastle’s John Hunter Hospital and John Hunter Children’s Hospital. Professor Kong is an otolaryngology, head and neck surgeon and a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

In 2023, Professor Kong was named NAIDOC Person of the Year for his work with Indigenous children at risk of hearing loss due to otitis media, which affects 40% to 85% of children in Indigenous communities.

“I’m extremely honoured by such a recognition, but I think for me it’s really about the recognition of the paucity of ear disease and this dichotomy we’re living in with health in this country,” Professor Kong said.

Health care “by the community, for the community” with Professor Kelvin Kong - Featured Image
Professor Kelvin Kong

Professor Kong regularly travels to remote Australia to provide ear, nose and throat services to Indigenous people, where he sees firsthand the dichotomy in health outcomes for ear disease in this country.  

“It’s allowed me to highlight ear disease in this country. It’s certainly allowed me to push for an agenda amongst my fraternity, but also amongst the government to really try and bring awareness and also make change in this area.”

“I’m so glad I’m in Australia because of the care that we can get in this country. And by the same token, when I look at the ear disease rates that we have, the non-Indigenous population have a completely different prevalence and incidence and outcome from ear disease than Indigenous kids,” Professor Kong said.

“And yet this is in the same hospitals, in the same health district, in the same country that we live in, that we’re seeing this real distinct difference.”

Professor Kong emphasised the importance of culturally safe health care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, with a need for representation at all levels of health care to ensure that health care is “by the community, for the community”.

“Health to us is how do we make our kids successful and out of hospitals? How do we make sure that our mental and spiritual wellbeing is very encompassed? How do we make sure that we progress in society to be able to live the dreams that we want to dream and be a part of and engaged in society? And that’s being healthy and well,” Professor Kong said.

“We’ve got to make sure that in all levels of hospital, there is actually appropriate representation that engages people in the right manner. But also those who are making decisions … about health outcomes need to have a lens of Aboriginal people when they’re looking at that.”

“My KPIs should be how many of the community am I getting access to? How many of these kids are actually getting through school safely? How many of these kids are actually getting all these issues addressed so they can actually push through school and get their employment and jobs they need? That’s the KPI I want to see because that’s what the community would hold me to expectation on.”

Despite the challenges and disparities that continue, Professor Kong is optimistic about the progress being made in terms of representation and the discourse happening in health spaces.

“The amount of females coming through surgery is amazing, the amount of Aboriginal doctors coming through medical schools is just amazing. Some of the kids I mentor at high schools are just incredible, and I’m sure I’ve seen our first president in some of the kids I’m mentoring.”

“[There is] optimism in me in the way in which we’re changing things, and certainly we see that in the engagement around hospitals and engagement around research and engagement around ethics. There’s a lot more conversations and engagement of Aboriginal people, which I think is wonderful.”

Professor Kong is one of the guest editors of the MJA Special Issue on Indigenous Health, which is in partnership with the Lowitja Institute, Australia’s only national Aboriginal Community Controlled Research Institute.

“I give a really a high accolade to the MJA for this issue of Indigenous health. It’s been put together by a bunch of amazing, talented Aboriginal people,” Professor Kong said.

“Editors love the control of their magazines and their publications. But for them to be able to say, ‘You know what, this is something that we think is important and we want you guys to lead this,’ is pretty special.”

Listen to the podcast with Professor Kelvin Kong.

Read the Special Issue of the MJA.

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