In May 2016, I accompanied the Perth-based Earbus Foundation of WA on a one-week outreach ear health visit in the Pilbara in North West Western Australia. The primary source of funding for these visits is the Australian Government’s Healthy Ears: Better Hearing, Better Listening program, which aims to improve ear health in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and youth under 21 years of age.
The Earbus team screens and monitors hearing levels, and provides health education and treatment in remote Aboriginal community schools, as well as South Hedland Primary School, a day care centre and a women’s refuge. The members of the multidisciplinary team include an audiologist, primary health practitioner (GP or nurse practitioner), nurse educator, nurse audiometrist, and a person responsible for data entry and transportation, who also happens to be the Foundation’s CEO. Periodically an ear nose and throat surgeon joins the team, and two ‘Captain Starlights’ from the Starlight Children’s Foundation attend every second visit.
The Earbus Foundation’s regular visits to remote communities are enabling major improvements for the children living in these communities.
The Foundation works collaboratively with the local Aboriginal Medical Service. This is essential for the provision of medications and for maintaining patient medical records, from data supplied by the team.
Consistent membership of the multidisciplinary team has built rapport with the children, their families, and with staff at the schools and local service providers. Dedicated and caring health professionals and volunteers work in a culturally appropriate and inclusive way.
Clinics are mostly held on school premises which minimises the amount of time away from lessons.
The service is able to locate and transport children, and their guardians if necessary, to the school to provide pre-operative information and obtain consent for surgery, and post-operative follow-up.
Earbus has implemented an Ear Health Ambassador program where children who have had positive treatment outcomes are trained to reinforce health messages to their peers between visits. The Captain Starlights enhance the children’s experience through fun and creative activities, while freeing up time for the clinicians to do their tasks.
Local services provide in-kind support, such as providing storage space equipment between visits.
However, there are some challenges. Working hours are long due to distances travelled to reach remote communities each day. The service must contend with bush driving conditions: rough roads, animals on the road, long iron ore trains, and tyre blowouts. Multiple strategies are required to ensure treatment consent and compliance. There are never enough tissues!
We all went home exhausted on Friday night, yet satisfied that we had improved the children’s health and wellbeing. Ongoing funding for programs, new equipment and staff is always needed. To find out more and to help visit
earbus.org.au and starlight.org.au