Trevor Riley, 44, travelled 450km from his remote NT for treatment after a major heart attack. (ABC: Rosa Ellen)
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are dying from heart disease at twice, and in some regions, triple the rate of non-Indigenous people in the same communities, according to new data from the Heart Foundation.
- Heart disease is responsible for about a quarter of the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians
- Indigenous women in the NT are hospitalised for heart conditions over six times more than other Australians
- Areas with high hospital admissions often have lower rates of literacy and employment as well as housing issues
The figures come from hospital admissions across the nation, and lay bare the stark difference in health outcomes for heart patients.
One of those patients is 44-year-old Trevor Riley, who last week suffered a major heart attack in his remote community of Minyerri, 450 kilometres from Darwin.
He identified his symptoms of a painful arm and immediately called a community clinic, after which he was flown to the Royal Darwin Hospital.
It was the second serious heart complication Mr Riley has experienced, after having his aortic valve replaced at the age of 40, in Adelaide.
“I was in a coma for 27 days with my partner, just praying and praying, just like an angel on top of me. I came back from sleep and came back really safely. But now I’m back in hospital, I don’t know what’s happening with me,” Mr Riley said.
As an Aboriginal man in outback Northern Territory, Mr Riley is almost three times more likely than a non-Aboriginal man to wind up in hospital due to heart disease.
Cardiologist Marcus Ilton (L) says he is often shocked by the young age of his patients. (ABC: Rosa Ellen)
The Territory and Western Australia have the widest gaps in hospitalisation rates, with a ratio of 4.4 in WA’s Wheatbelt
“At a national level we’ve known about the heart health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians for some time, but this new data actually tells us how stark that gap is across some of Australia’s regions,” the Heart Foundation’s health equity manager Jane Potter said.
“In the NT, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are hospitalised for heart failure at a rate of six times that of non-Indigenous women living in the Northern Territory.”
The new figures don’t surprise Marcus Ilton, one of a handful of cardiologists based in Darwin, but he is shocked by the young age of his Indigenous patients, many who have developed rheumatic heart disease from childhood.
- Northern Territory had the highest rate of heart disease deaths among Indigenous peoples at 175.1 per 100,000 people
- NSW had the lowest rate at 119.9 per 100,000 people
- Western Australia and the Northern Territory have the widest gap in hospitalisation rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians at almost 400 per cent
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may delay seeking treatment due to a historical distrust of mainstream health services
- The Heart Foundation is working with eighteen hospitals across Australia to create culturally safe experiences for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples when they are admitted to hospital for heart problems
“Seeing a young 18-year-old lady who’s having her first pregnancy who’s already had valve surgery, has now got a valve that’s been repaired but it’s still not working well so the risk of her getting through pregnancy is a major difficulty … sometimes we have to advise people that they may not survive the pregnancy,” he said.
“Rheumatic heart disease is a sad story that Australia really does need to improve. But the other side of it is heart disease is also affecting 20 and 30-year-olds. We’ve had episodes of 20 and 30-year-olds playing footy and having a heart attack.”
Ms Potter wants the new evidence to inform the Government’s Close the Gap policy.
“This really highlights the association between heart disease and socioeconomic disadvantage,” she said.
“Good heart health is associated with a good income, adequate housing, secure employment, access to affordable healthy food, and in some of these regions there is persistent disadvantage.”