fit for life

Doctor Alanna Sandell isn’t all she appears to be. Speaking with her, it soon becomes obvious that beneath a warm and engaging exterior, there lies steely strength, determination and ambition. ‘I’ve been tough a long time’, she said. ‘I’ve got that type of personality’.

It’s this toughness that Alanna drew on in deciding to relocate her medical practice and family from NSW to WA last year. And it’s this toughness that is driving her burning desire to have a lasting impact on the health and wellbeing of current and future generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

So far, this proud Ngarrindjeri woman is hitting the mark on both counts.

Through her business Monitor: Health Check Solutions, Alanna is helping Indigenous Australians maintain their fitness for work and for life, by providing pre-employment assessments and personalised health programs for high-risk employees. These packages are developed following onsite health assessments of a company’s Indigenous employees to identify any early health or safety risks.

As a qualified general practitioner (GP), Alanna has extensive experience in and knowledge of general and Indigenous-specific health issues, including orthopaedics, cardiothoracic intensive care, coronary care, drug and alcohol treatment and mental healthcare.

‘This business is here to help people’, she said. ‘It was conceived to focus on Indigenous health – helping Indigenous people maintain their fitness for work. Our business is designed to effectively address the needs of business by assisting companies in reducing downtime, retaining Indigenous employees and maintaining a safe and healthy workplace’.

Alanna explains that numerous health conditions are more prevalent within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. ‘Indigenous people are affected early in life by many chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, hypertension, mental health issues, lung disease and renal failure, which significantly affect their quality of life, including their work productivity and retention’, she said.

‘Indigenous people’s health is so affected by these diseases that their lives are shortened by 20 years on average when compared to non-Indigenous Australians’, she continued. ‘That should highlight to all industries that employ Indigenous people that monitoring the health of their Indigenous employees is of enormous benefit in retaining those workers’.

‘A lot of it is lack of education’, she said. ‘They [the clients] haven’t actually understood the disease process or the management involved. I have a very detailed and broad [medical] base. So that’s why I can work in an area like this and feel pretty confident. But it’s also being Indigenous myself and understanding cultural barriers. A lot of the Indigenous guys will speak to me and are more receptive [than going to another GP] in terms of their health. They feel more support from and have more trust in me because I can relate’.

Alanna gives an example of an Indigenous man who refused to take insulin to treat his diabetes. He had received negative feedback from his community about insulin and was frightened of taking it. By gaining his trust and understanding the cultural context, Alanna helped the man to begin treating his condition.

Alanna knows from personal experience the pain that can result from inequity in health, healthcare and health education. She says her childhood was very difficult. Her father suffered from health issues related to an ongoing struggle with his Indigenous identity, and left the family home when Alanna was young.

‘I look at my father – he was never settled, never truly a happy man. Not down to the core; there was a sadness in him for who he was’, she said.

Alanna left home when she was 16 years old and, with characteristic determination, put herself through the remaining two years of high school by working in a supermarket and lodging with a family. She said she was drawn to the medical profession, training first as a nurse.

‘Just to go to university was a treat. I was so pleased to have gotten into university. I did nursing but was never really happy with it. I am very nurturing, so it appeals to my personality, and I loved the health industry. But in nursing I couldn’t make my own decisions. I was being told what to do and I didn’t like that. I realised I had to go off and become the person that my brain wants me to be’.

Alanna moved to Newcastle in NSW to undertake an arts degree, but after being accepted into medical school, obtained her Bachelor of Medicine from the University of Newcastle.

General practitioner and business owner Dr Alanna Sandell at work.

General practitioner and business owner Dr Alanna Sandell at work.

Over the years Alanna has witnessed inequalities in Indigenous health first-hand, having worked in remote communities and within the Aboriginal Medical Service. But the first seed of her business idea was planted in late 2010 when she visited her brother in QLD and spent time at a mine where he was working.

‘Oddly enough, the business idea came out of the blue’, she said. ‘I always wanted to run a business but I didn’t want to run a general practice. I wanted a bigger business, something I am very passionate about; part of me wanted that challenge. I realised that to make any sort of difference you’ve got to put a business together.

‘Indigenous people’s health is so affected by these diseases that their lives are shortened by 20 years on average when compared to non-Indigenous Australians. That should highlight to all industries that employ Indigenous people that monitoring the health of their Indigenous employees is of enormous benefit in retaining those workers.’

As I found out through my research, there is a need for a company like mine to step in with the larger companies [and Indigenous workers] and help facilitate the individual and the company in getting people fit for work’.

Once she had decided on the focus for her enterprise, Alanna set about building a framework around her idea and in doing so came into contact with IBA. To help explore her readiness for business and to develop her idea, IBA invited Alanna to attend its series of Into Business™ workshops.

‘I did the three workshops, which were useful. It was great, such a huge learning curve’, she said. On completing the workshops, facilitator Garry King provided ongoing assistance over the phone to support Alanna as she developed her idea further.

Not long after completing the Into Business™ workshops, Alanna relocated to WA to take up a contract delivering health programs to a major mining company. But things didn’t go according to plan, and that contract fell through. With typical resolve, Alanna set about building relationships with alternative WA companies with whom she might work. She credits Donald MacIntyre, Senior Business Development Manager at Ngarda Civil & Mining (50 per cent subsidiary of Leighton Contractors Pty Limited) for going ‘over and above’ in introducing her to companies that hire Indigenous employees.

A meeting with Leighton Contractors and Broad – who are constructing the inlet and public space facilities for the Elizabeth Quay development in Perth – provided the turning point Alanna was seeking. Alanna attended Leighton Broad’s Elizabeth Quay Indigenous Business Forum, an event supported by IBA, aimed at encouraging employment and business opportunities for Indigenous Australians. The event outlined project opportunities, as well as the resources and strategies available to assist organisations to secure works on the Elizabeth Quay project.

As a result of attending that forum, Alanna was offered an opportunity to work with the Leighton Broad Elizabeth Quay project team delivering a pre-employment medical service for the employees. The company has also leased Alanna office space within its building so she can easily consult with those working on the project. ‘They are promoting Indigenous employment and training and I have slotted into that’ she said, reflecting on her good fortune. However she also credits Leighton Contractors’ employees Shirley McPherson, Group Manager of Indigenous Business, and Raylene Bellottie, Manager of Indigenous Employment for facilitating this initiative.

While her business is still in its infancy, Alanna says she has received a lot of interest from companies about what she is trying to achieve, and she is using every available opportunity to network and talk to people about her work. With the business gaining momentum, Alanna is excited that so many aspects of her past and her professional training are finally coming together.

‘I’m an obsessive person when I want something’, she said. ‘I have not stopped thinking about this business over the last two years. Not for one day. You cannot ever get something off the ground unless you are obsessed. Every day it has to be front of mind. Whatever you want in life, you have to be completely focused’.

‘You can have a goal, a dream’, she added. ‘You don’t have to get everything right all the time… You don’t always have to be the best of the best all the time. Life is part of learning and growing, and moving ahead is actually failing at things and trying again, and being happy with that’.

Juggling the role of medical professional and businesswoman, it is clear that Alanna is a family woman above all else. As a single mother, she is proud of the travel experiences she has offered her two children, and proud of the way they have coped and adapted with the move to WA and a year of drastic change.

‘It was a big thing for us to move and for them to leave all their friends,’ she said. ‘I’ve always kept them very close about what we are doing with the business. It’s our family business, and I wanted them to be a part of the whole thing’.

For all her determination and ambition, Alanna says she is happy to let her business develop at a natural pace, to ensure it achieves the long-term outcomes she yearns for.

‘So my legacy is to my children. I want to say to them that you can be Indigenous and be a doctor, and you can be Indigenous and a businessperson. At the end of my career I don’t want for anything other than to give the next generation strength. It’s very important to know who they are and be proud of who they are.’

‘I would like Indigenous people to have a better understanding about their health and how to prevent poor health, and if they’ve got chronic diseases, to make sure that they are more aware of treatments’, she said. ‘In an ideal world I would like to see no diabetes, or to see the gaps [in health] reduced, and I would like to know that I have picked up a patient’s disease at an early age and managed it.

‘When there are bad health outcomes, the whole fibre of a family is lost. It’s gone. It’s very important to keep all that together’.

‘So my legacy is to my children. I want to say to them that you can be Indigenous and be a doctor, and you can be Indigenous and a businessperson. At the end of my career I don’t want for anything other than to give the next generation strength.

‘It’s very important to know who they are and be proud of who they are. Then they’ll be a settled generation because they’ll be happy with who they are’.