The expansion of the Puntukurnu Aboriginal Medical Service (PAMS) dialysis unit is providing community members with much-needed treatment closer to home.
With the unit opening earlier this year, the medical service has expanded their renal services with the help of The Purple House and visiting nephrologist Dr Harish Puttagunta.
Dr Puttagunta, who has been working in the Pilbara since 2017, became interested in Aboriginal health when he came over from India and the UK in 2007. Working in Darwin, Hobart and Melbourne he then moved to WA and began working at Fiona Stanley Hospital, travelling to the Pilbara region to support the local renal service.
“It was originally in Darwin that I got into Indigenous medicine and was fascinated with the culture and knew that this was the space I wanted to work in,” he said.
“When I moved to WA, a couple of my colleagues had been going to the Pilbara and PAMS needed somebody to go into the communities for renal services and I put my hand up.
“I used to do four trips a year and would go out to the Indigenous communities of Jigalong and Punmu.
Eventually, the Newman facility opened and we felt my time was better spent at the bigger locations like Newman and Jigalong, which is where I see most of my patients.”
Visiting the region about every six weeks, Dr Puttagunta said despite some patients still requiring treatment in Perth, having an expanded renal service in Newman meant more people in the region had access to important treatment closer to home.
“The community and the health care workers have always felt that there had to be more accessible dialysis for community members,” he said.
“PAMS was able to access funding from BHP (for the dialysis centre) and since starting we are pretty much running six days a week; the services are always full and juggling patients.”
Dr Puttagunta said the renal unit has four dialysis chairs and runs four sessions a day.
“In terms of the population up here, it’s an extremely high percentage of people who suffer with kidney disease,” he said.
“People are often very late presenters partly because they have ignored it for a long time and think they feel fine so don’t understand the need for medication.”
Dr Puttagunta said going forward he would like to see education sessions with Elders so that it empowers and helps them to better understand their health.
“I’d like to see Elders who may have received kidney treatment be positive examples that they are living normal lives,” he said.
“I would like to train Elders up as care workers and work with them so they can role model how to lead healthy lives for the rest of the community.”
He added that it was also important to take the lead from places like PAMS and bring these solutions to other regional areas around the state.
“We are currently in dire straits with dialysis spots across the state,” he said.
“In the past six months numbers have exploded – it’s a massive crisis.
“To open these local units, not only helps patients because they get treatment in the community, it also relieves the pressures on the system.
“It’s what we need, and we need to support these creative solutions and innovation – there’s a need for this to be replicated in many other areas.”
PAMS has been supported through the Rural Health Outreach Services Program; the Medical Outreach Indigenous Disease Program to deliver nephrology services since 2017.
Rural Health West administers the Rural Health Outreach Services Program in WA on behalf of the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care.
Purple House is an Indigenous-owned and run health service operating from its base in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. It operates 18 remote clinics and a mobile dialysis unit called the Purple Truck, which helps to get patients back home so that families and culture can remain strong.