RL highlights: Rohan Corpus
Health in the heartland
Rohan Corpus is a man whose work takes him across 52 per cent of the vast state of Queensland, and throughout 33 different rural and remote communities. He helps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and others residing in rural and remote Queensland to access specialist cardiac services.
He has embarked on a crusade—with no conclusive end in site—to empower people marginalised and disadvantaged within conventional health systems. And he has witnessed so many positive changes blossom that he remains unfazed by the long road ahead.
He is a leader passionate about capacity-building within some of the most vulnerable rural and remote communities, and he sees his experience on Course 18 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program as something that has tempered and strengthened his zest and determination to drive change.
And the path he has trod, as the best ones tend to be, was often unplanned.
“I got into health by accident,” he says.
Upon finishing his 11-year role as an Indigenous Project Manager with Oxfam Australia, Rohan had gained experience developing philosophies that aligned with the ideology of self-determination. He spent years facilitating a cultural exchange program taking Indigenous Australians over to India, and he was ready to look for a new direction.
“It was then that I picked up consultancy work with the Australian Government working on Queensland health reform initiatives, looking at new implementation strategies. These included diverse methods such as endogenous and people-centred approaches,” he says.
While his career to this point had taken Rohan to India, Guatemala, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, one of his greatest gifts would be his strong community connections.
“It’s very challenging work: you’ve got communities with horrific history, and marginal people, whether they’re black or white, whose voices haven’t been heard in the past,” Rohan says.
The reality of this, he explains, means that people implementing changes to healthcare processes, or trying to explain key issues, will often strike hostility as relationships and trust haven't been established.
“People will exercise their frustrations on whoever happens to be there. This is where you have to be aware of text versus subtext. The text is the abuse you might encounter, but the subtext are the causes and issues which haven’t been addressed over the past at all.”
When he was approached by Queensland Health to design a cardiac outreach program for rural and remote communities, Rohan jumped at the chance, with the knowledge that the government was open “to doing old business in a new way.”
“It would be about using my community framework and connections in negotiations to implement a bottom-up approach based on building relationships with equality,” he says.
“It was all about the community driving what their requirements were, and how we should facilitate the process. We worked with community, not against and avoided the traditional Government delivery process, which is top-down.”
From a turbulent upbringing, in which he was taken from his parents as a boy, Rohan did not always experience childhood in a positive way.
He says from this start in life, he has always been searching to find his purpose.
“Development and building capacity in other groups is a passion of mine, and I see that as the way forward, maybe because that had been lacking in my environment,” he says.
From the beginning, Rohan’s role has been about grappling with the big health problems that pervade his region, and these are not merely physical.
“The most pressing and obvious problem is about paternalism, and I hate to say, lack of cultural integrity,” he says.
“There are Indigenous people here in positions in the health sector who are at the coal-face of change, but there are also those traditionally who bring in a certain expertise but unfortunately don’t recognise the essential tools Indigenous health care workers also hold.
“Fighting against that paternalism has been a struggle, but we’re getting better at recognising the unhelpful hierarchical mentality,” Rohan says.
And as for his own leadership style, the health advocate has never adhered to being shy or subservient.
“I deal with CEOs and specialists and communities, and I try to encourage our mob to be more confident around our positions, and to feel comfortable enough to challenge people who are oppressing or suppressing them,” he says.
However, in his reflections as a Fellow of Course 18, Rohan says the Program may have softened his sharper edges, and given him the strategies to polish his approach.
“I’m not as reactive anymore, even though I’m still pushing the envelope,” he says.
“I tend to sit back and view the situation a little more, which has given me a sense of calmness.
“I think prior to the Program, I was what some might call radical, and not being as effective.”
And the rural leader has never taken his eye off being effective in order to improve those communities in Australia still suffering poor access to healthcare.
“I think change has to come from within, not externally. Even when I go into communities I’m from, they say to me “no, you’re an outsider”. But they respect and relate to me, which is so beneficial in being effective in my work,” Rohan says.
His leadership has also involved an element of psychology unique to someone aware of the “inside” issues of remote health.
“I’m talking only up until five years ago, Indigenous people wouldn’t come to hospital unless they were presenting at an acute stage. This meant physicians' scope for intervention would be minimal, and in severe cases little could be done to prevent unnecessary suffering or death. The message this sent to communities was that if you go to hospital, you die. This myth sent fear through the community, so people wouldn’t come to clinics,” Rohan explains.
“Our clinic’s focus now is never about sickness, it’s always about wellness. If you focus on sickness, especially in our communities, people expect someone else to resolve things for them. But if you talk about wellness, and provide the tools, they’re more likely to change their behaviour and take self-responsibility."
And there’s a tangibility to what Rohan and his colleagues are achieving that propels them ever-forward.
“We’re fortunate to have been recognised as an outreach program that delivers results. Consequently I've travelled to other states and other service delivery organisations, and staff are often sent to shadow our work practices, as they are interested in replicating our strategies,” he says.
“We’re having success, we’re seeing impacts and what I’d like to see at the end is improved health outcomes.”