Image of first nations flag and a stethoscope

Healing Holistically – Healthy Country and Community

17 November 2022
Dr Veronica Matthews work recognised as top 10 First Nations health author
Matthews’ work focuses on improving holistic health care systems, the model of comprehensive care embodied by community-controlled primary health services that care for body, mind and spirit for first nations patients.

Dr Veronica Matthews is a health systems researcher from the Quandamooka community of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island). She is based at the University Centre for Rural Health (UCRH) on Widjabul/Wyabul Country in Lismore.

Last month Matthews was acknowledged as top 10 First Nations health author by scholarly output in the world along with two other University of Sydney’s Faculty of Medicine and Health colleagues FMH researchers.

Early influences

As a saltwater Murri, Matthews’ early experiences – the saltwater country around Minjerribah aka North Stradbroke Island - were the initial inspiration for her studies in ecology and environmental toxicology. Her PhD involved assessing persistent organic pollutants in Moreton Bay seafood for consumption advisories and health risk assessments for surrounding communities.

This took Matthews to work for more than 20 years in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health sector across government and research roles. And always, from the get-go, Matthews’ work focused on improving holistic health care systems, the model of comprehensive care embodied by community-controlled primary health services that care for body, mind and spirit.

Holistic systems combine health of Country with community and family. Its premise is that healthy communities are inextricably linked to the social, cultural and environmental determinants of health.  To ensure her work is not just about outputs, but sustainable outcomes, Matthews’ research and collaborations apply systems-thinking, and commit to community-based participatory research with a focus on quality improvement approaches. 

Image of first nations peoples lighting a fire

Cultural burn on Bundjalung Country – September 2022

Current collaborations  

Matthews co-leads the Centre for Research Excellence in Strengthening systems for Indigenous health care Equity (CRE-STRIDE; 2020-2024). STRIDE’s work is diverse, investigating the full gamut of topics within comprehensive primary care from social and emotional wellbeing and preventive health, as well as systems issues such as workforce and determinants of health, such as the role of connection to Country in wellbeing.

The STRIDE collaboration is challenging norms of research practice that are based on non-Indigenous paradigms. STRIDE is encouraging reflection and change within research systems to recognise and embrace Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges, theories and methodologies. The value of Indigenous Knowledge systems has been vastly underappreciated, and research has played a major part in sidelining First Nations’ voices.

There is wide consensus, as evidenced in recent key policy frameworks such as the ‘Closing the Gap refresh,’ that to remedy current inequities, health solutions need to come from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, drawing on culture, local knowledge and experience. It requires decolonisation – a shift away from purely Western thought traditions and systems to embrace Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing, being and doing. 

With this same philosophy, Matthews also leads the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Knowledges’ theme of the Healthy Environments And Lives (HEAL) Network (2022-2026). That aims to improve health and wellbeing through healthy environments.

A National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Special Initiative, this interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral collaboration unites stakeholders from research institutes, government agencies, industry, services and communities across Australia.

A key priority of the HEAL Network is working alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to strengthen adaptive capacity and reduce climate risk. Matthews leads the Healing Country Project which weaves together knowledge systems to meet climate challenges (ARC Discovery 2022 – 2026). The aim is to bring together community knowledges and health, climate and environment data to create community story-data maps.

These interactive, online maps will be a unique and powerful blend of information, providing a rich evidence base, decision-support and communication tool to inform the co-design of local climate change mitigation and adaptation plans. The project aims to give agency to Aboriginal communities in leading systems-change processes to reduce environmental risks and strengthen health and wellbeing.