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Indigenous Australian Boy’s Death and Inadequate Health Care

Report Documents ‘Significant Disadvantage’ to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this piece contains the name and image of a deceased person. His name and image are used with the permission of the family. 

On August 24, the Queensland Health Ombudsman found that the health care delivered to a 6-year-old Australian boy who died from a sudden illness in 2017 was “likely inadequate.”

Charlie Gowa (left), his mother Xernona PoiPoi, and brother Richard. © Private

Charlie Gowa grew up in a remote Torres Strait Islander community in Queensland, Australia. When he became ill in January 2017 with severe symptoms, his parents rushed him to the local hospital.

Staff told them it was likely a stomach bug and sent Charlie home with ice and a pain reliever. When Charlie showed no improvements, his parents sought treatment from Bamaga Hospital five more times before their son was finally admitted. But it was too late. Charlie was critically ill with a rare bacterial infection called melioidosis. Nine days after first seeking help, Charlie passed away as a result of overwhelming sepsis.  

The Queensland Health Ombudsman’s investigation found that the hospital staff failed to recognize Charlie’s rapid deterioration, did not adequately document his case, and that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples remain at a significant disadvantage compared to other Queenslanders across many health measures.”

The investigation identified multiple issues at Bamaga Hospital regarding the delivery of culturally appropriate care, finding Charlie’s parents were left traumatized because medical staff never appropriately addressed their grievances.  

“Our community needs access to safe health care, just like any Australian community does,” Charlie’s father told the National Justice Project. “No family should face the barriers that we faced in trying to save our son.”

Racism in the Australian healthcare system has frequently led to devastating results.

In 2019, Naomi Williams, a pregnant 27-year-old Wiradjuri woman, died of sepsis after medical staff failed to give her potentially lifesaving antibiotics. An investigation into her death found that her care was affected by unconscious and implicit bias or racism. 

All state and territory governments in Australia should ensure the presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander liaison workers in hospitals serving Indigenous populations, adopt measures to increase the employment and retention of Indigenous healthcare professionals, and train staff in culturally appropriate care and the impact of unconscious and implicit bias. It is essential to saving lives.

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