Can we handle disclosures of family violence?

5 minute read

How one doctor’s experience with racism inspired a new clinic in one of Victoria’s oldest hospitals.

I still remember the first day I met a First Nations doctor. It was a profound moment that led to my decision to study medicine – a career I had always wanted but which never truly felt achievable up until that moment.

I cannot do justice to the protective benefit that having First Nations people in medicine, particularly at senior levels, has had upon me. It was First Nations doctors who stood beside me when I had to reconcile myself with the deeply distressing impact of racism from my medical peers.

For a long time, I felt that racism in medicine was a dirty little secret; something spoken about in short snippets as hurried conversations in corridors that usually went nowhere other than the sad glance of a sympathetic colleague, clearly distressed by the account of racism but unsure how to advocate for change.

If you ask First Nations people about their experiences of our hospitals, their accounts are damning. There is no question that racism impacts the care people receive in our hospitals. This racism costs lives, such as that of Wiradjuri woman, Naomi Williams, and her unborn baby 1. For myself, comments on my appearance as an Aboriginal doctor have always been hurtful and undermined my safety and confidence while training.

My most defining experience of racism, however, occurred after I made a genuine disclosure of life-threatening family violence and sought support from my senior colleagues during this time. I received not so much as a text message, a phone call or even a cup of coffee from my training supervisor, and limited on-call cover and bullying from another who, even in the face of serious and life-threatening family violence, felt that my priority should be listing off differential diagnoses and mnemonics for my exam.

The fact that doctors manage disclosures of family violence poorly should not be a surprise to anyone who works in medicine. What training have we had? For most of us, very little. Family violence training was never part of my medical school or specialist training.

None of my clinical supervisors prior to my disclosure had family violence training and were, I assert, predictably inadequate in their responses. First Nations woman and children do experience higher rates of family violence but are not the only group affected – many people of different backgrounds and statuses suffer from it, mostly woman and their children2,3. At what point does our reluctance to adequately train doctors who have the expertise to manage disclosures of family violence continue to perpetuate this gender and health inequity?

All in all, my experience of racism left me wondering whether, if I had been a doctor of any racial background other than Aboriginal, would the lives of my family members have been valued more? Would I have received more support? Would my colleagues have been more willing to cover my on-call?

The answers to these questions may be academic to others but are deeply personal to me. This is the sometimes-non-quantifiable racism experienced every day by First Nations people who interact with the hospital system, clinical supervisors and training providers.

For me, it informed my decision to establish a clinic dedicated to First Nations people within the Royal Melbourne Hospital, where First Nations people are seen by a First Nations doctor in a space where the care and dignity of the individual are prioritised above racism and bias.

I am pleased to announce that the clinic has an ongoing community partnership with Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) following their generous support and has secured five years of funding to allow it to become a more permanent place within the hospital.

There is a dedicated space where First Nations people are welcome, and I am allowed to speak about the impact of racism with my colleagues and the generations of new doctors coming through.

Overwhelming, my hope for the future is that hospitals, medical schools and specialist training providers recognise that family violence is an important health issue and embrace our role as medical professionals in supporting and advocating for victims and survivors of family violence.

Let’s pledge a commitment to train doctors and clinical supervisors capable of managing family violence disclosures as part of our commitment to the safety of woman, children and priority community groups.

Lastly, I hope that no other trainee is ever treated the inexcusable way I was treated by my hospital colleagues in response to a family violence disclosure. By talking about these things openly, I hope we demand a higher standard of ourselves as doctors and petition our training providers to produce graduates and clinical supervisors up to this critical task.

Dr Williams is a Wiradjuri woman, consultant dermatologist and clinical lead of the First Nations Teledermatology Clinic at the Royal Melbourne Hospital located on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nations. She also provides a visiting specialist service to the Northern Territory and sits on the Board of Directors of the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association.

This article first appeared in the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association (AHHA) magazine The Health Advocate and is reproduced with permission.


  1. Inquest into the death Naomi Williams:
  2. Victorian Royal Commission on Family Violence Report:
  3. Link to AIHW Report on Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia: continuing the national story 2019:

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