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Sticking a needle through social barriers

22 May 2018 Endeavour College of Natural Health

Sticking a needle through social barriers

When acupuncturist Kirsten Baker ventured to China in her early twenties to discover the essence of her craft through volunteering at a communal acupuncture centre within a Traditional Chinese Medicine hospital, little did she know decades later she’d be helping establish a similar model of care to support a groundbreaking Australian social housing facility.

The connections we make often prove a critical force in determining the direction our working lives take, and acupuncturist Kirsten Baker is living proof of this. During her years treating clients at top health resorts Camp Eden and Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat, Kirsten’s passion for her craft and non-judgemental approach made a strong impression on social justice champion Natasha Rodrigues who would later headhunt her for the role of her career.

When Natasha told Kirsten about her work with non-profit organisation Micah Projects to provide allied healthcare services to a first-of-its-kind supportive housing facility in inner Brisbane offering affordable housing to prevent and end homelessness for the chronically homeless and disadvantaged, the passionate acupuncturist was immediately captivated by the project.

“Natasha told me Micah Projects CEO Karyn Walsh was interested in exploring the idea of incorporating a community acupuncture centre into her upcoming Inclusive Health Clinic and hinted at a possible role for me there, and I dived at the opportunity to be involved,” said Kirsten.

The idea behind the health centre was simple. People experiencing homelessness and financial distress have particular vulnerabilities with complex healthcare needs and require a unique health care approach. That’s where the new Inclusive Health Clinic comes in, serving this community through providing a program of free acupuncture, social work support, dental and medical services delivered with sensitivity.

Those behind the growing health centre say it not only makes measurable improvements in the life of its clients and their families – it also reduces the demand on public services with the potential to save the community tens of thousands of dollars annually.

Kirsten has spent the last 12 months establishing a pilot community acupuncture clinic supporting Brisbane Common Ground tenants, where she treats up to eight seated clients at once in the comfort of a leather recliner within a group setting. Sessions run from between 40 and 60 minutes each, with the majority of her customers seeking support for the symptoms of anxiety and stress, pain management or addiction.

“I’m so excited about what we’re creating as it is making acupuncture treatment possible for the underserved and isolated parts of our community who wouldn’t otherwise be in a position to seek this support,” said Kirsten.

“What’s really powerful is that these treatments are culturally appropriate. There is no need for clients to book in, feel concerned about being treated in a one-on-one setting, and they don’t need to remove any clothing as we can treat their hands, feet, lower limbs, head and ears. This removes a lot of potential barriers for people who have typically undergone significant trauma through domestic violence and mental illness,” said Kirsten.

“This work has made me realise the inequity of how opportunities and funding are made available to our vulnerable communities. You have to be savvy to help yourself avoid falling through the cracks, and this health centre is helping provide a much-needed safety net and helping people feel like they’re part of the community.”

“This is no small issue we’re talking about here. The lack of affordable housing and healthcare is an increasing area of need in our community that heightens the social divide. It is one of the biggest contemporary issues of our time.”

Micah Projects CEO Karyn Walsh said she was initially inspired to launch the Inclusive Health Clinic after seeing a similar integrated healthcare model being used successfully in health clinics, housing projects and even probation offices in the United States.

“The people we support can’t afford to pay for health services such as acupuncture and yoga, yet we know these supports are critical for people who are recovering from the impact of trauma. The vast majority of our participants have experienced significant trauma and less than half of them have ever sought help for it before – inequality is at the heart of this issue and is something we are trying to address through our clinic,” said Karyn.

“We also wanted to make it simpler for our clients by bringing together these vital services under the one roof in an area that was comfortable, spacious and treated them with dignity. In order to achieve this, we actively sought out partners with the expertise and drive to ensure our most vulnerable have access to a holistic range of services.”

The Inclusive Health Clinic has been created with the support of dental care specialists the Tzu Chi Buddhist Compassionate Relief Association, Mater Hospital, St Vincent’s Private Hospital Brisbane and the Brisbane City Council who provided a grant that will fund a mobile GP to support people who are homeless in the community. Clients also have access to yoga teachers and massage sessions through the clinic.

While focused on the community’s most vulnerable, the clinic will also welcome residents from the local community.

Kirsten said she’d love to see the government address this issue at a policy level and put into practice planning outcomes that are inclusive rather than divisive.

“For this reason, I believe Micah’s Inclusive Health Centre is a groundbreaking project addressing social isolation through healthcare provision, and it is exciting and wholly appropriate that acupuncture is playing a role to deliver this.”

A large portion of Kirsten’s clientele are disadvantaged residents from Brisbane Common Ground, the city’s first supportive housing initiative offering permanent, affordable housing linked with tailored support services addressing the root causes of homelessness.

Brisbane Common Ground is a 14-storey apartment complex made up of 146 studio and one-bedroom apartments, with a front-desk concierge service to provide a safe and secure environment.

Kirsten’s work with Brisbane Common Ground residents fed into her fascination with how the built environment – our cities, suburbs and rural towns - impact the physical and psychological well-being of the people who live in it.

“Since studying urban planning and also becoming a mother, the way I thought about my immediate external environment and the public spaces I interacted with really changed. This helped me appreciate the work of Brisbane Common Ground and the way an individual's environment has the potential to dramatically influence their perspective on life - how could it not?”

Brisbane Common Ground tenants have immediate access to public transport, an on-site gym, cultural facilities around the corner and even a rooftop garden.

The project was inspired by a similar model of housing established in 1990 in the US, which proved successful in reducing homelessness in New York State. Five Australian States and Territories have since established supportive housing developments with a social mix of people with low incomes and those who have experienced homelessness.

The success of the model is attributed to the stability it offers residents through maximising their chances for an independent and healthy life to help them more effectively deal with the challenges that previously kept them homeless so that they can maximise their chances for an independent and healthy life.

Recent research shows it costs the State Government more when a person remains chronically homeless than to provide permanent supportive housing to end homelessness. Specifically, it found Brisbane Common Ground saved the community an average of $13,100 annually per tenant over the year they spent in supportive housing compared with the services they would likely have used when they were homeless including law and order, medical care and mental health services.

Brisbane Common Ground resident Ann is one of Kirsten’s most loyal clients and has been undergoing acupuncture sessions for seven months to help with anxiety, skin problems, insomnia and her plan to quit smoking.

“Being so close to the clinic makes such a difference. I just have to go down the stairs and I’m there – I don’t need to catch a bus or prepare myself. I couldn’t afford a full priced acupuncture session, so I feel very lucky that Micah would provide this service for people who really need it,” said Ann.   

When Kirsten isn’t working at Brisbane’s Inclusive Health Clinic, she can be found closer to home working alongside physiotherapists, chiropractors, psychologists and exercise physiologists at multi-modality clinic Living Well Studio at Burleigh Heads.

The busy acupuncturist attributes part of her distinct treatment style to the years she spent working in some of Australia’s leading health retreats.

“During those years I would frequently see clients going through very challenging experiences – I saw a young mother just diagnosed with multiple sclerosis with a two-year-old daughter to care for, and patients who had just received a second stage cancer diagnosis. This period of my career taught me the importance of being present and empathetic in that moment, as they deserved my full attention with what they were going through,” said Kirsten.

“When people are facing such extreme life circumstances and they choose you to help them, it’s a humbling experience. I always feel privileged by that – it’s the most rewarding part of my work.”

Interestingly, Kirsten’s fascination with acupuncture began when she started studying naturopathy at Endeavour College of Natural Health and took notice of a lecturer with a passion for the ancient form of medicine.

“I remember this teacher would get up in our tutorials and talk about the meridian points of the body and show us how to use moxa. It wasn’t long until that enthusiasm for acupuncture became contagious,” Kirsten said.

When Kirsten had her wisdom teeth out shortly later, she booked in with an acupuncturist straight out of the hospital and the results left her a convert.

“He acupunctured my jaw for me and I didn’t get any bruising and was able to recover really smoothly,” Kirsten said.

Kirsten quickly transferred from naturopathy to acupuncture, and the rest is history.

A career highlight was around the corner when Kirsten travelled to the port city of Xiamen in China to spend a month working in a Traditional Chinese Medicine hospital a few years after graduating.

She worked alongside two doctors in a communal acupuncture centre to treat hundreds of clients from all walks of life, an experience she found fascinating.

“I didn’t see another non-Chinese person for the first two weeks and spoke barely any Mandarin, but I was determined to discover the essence of this medicine I’d spent four years intensely studying,” Kirsten said.

“The way the Chinese treated acupuncture at the time was very different as the group setting makes it so much more affordable than in Australia. People buy a block of 10 sessions and they came in daily for treatment.”

“The acupuncturists all had their own speciality and worked in different departments of the hospital. There was actually a back pain department and a gynaecology department.”

In more recent times, Kirsten has been so invigorated by her work at the Inclusive Health Clinic she’s planning to throw herself into further research examining the need for delivery of complementary medicines to Australia’s underserved communities through Endeavour College of Natural Health’s Honours program.

The driven acupuncturist is determined to take the Inclusive Health Clinic’s community acupuncture centre as far as she possibly can.

“Ultimately I’d love to see this centre help as many disadvantaged people in Brisbane as possible and to get the word out that acupuncture can make a huge difference for people suffering trauma. I’d love to see this model rolled out more broadly, and to play a part in helping that happen both across Australia and the world by sharing what I’ve learned,” said Kirsten.

Five facts about Queensland’s homeless population

  • There are 26,782 homeless people in Queensland.
  • There are approximately 190 people sleeping rough in the Brisbane local government area every night.
  • 33% of Brisbane’s homeless are tri-morbid. That is, living with significant medical conditions, mental illness and substance misuse.
  • Queensland has the second highest homeless population in Australia.
  • 51% of the homeless population is aged 34 or younger.
Endeavour College of Natural Health

About Endeavour College of Natural Health

Endeavour College of Natural Health is Australia's largest Higher Education provider of natural medicine courses.

The College is known as the centre of excellence for natural medicine and is respected for its internationally recognised academic teams and high calibre graduates. Endeavour offers Bachelor of Health Science degrees and Honours programs in Naturopathy, Nutritional and Dietetic Medicine, Acupuncture and Myotherapy, and a fully online Bachelor of Complementary Medicine.

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