Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Students learn realities of asbestos diseases

It’s an unfortunate fact that asbestos diseases are a part of the Latrobe Valley’s story, however Monash Rural Health is doing what it can to arm medical students in the region about how to best assist local sufferers.

For the past eight years, first year medical students at Monash Rural Health Churchill have been educated about the realities of asbestos diseases for its sufferers by those who understand it best, Asbestos Council of Victoria/Gippsland Asbestos Related Diseases Support Inc (ACV/GARDS).

This week ACV/GARDS has again addressed local students as part of Monash Rural Health efforts to ensure students are well versed in the social and clinical contexts of the range of asbestos-related diseases.

Left to right: ACV/GARDS CEO Vicki Hamilton, medical students Naomi E-M and Glenn Teng, carer Dorothy Roberts, Monash researcher Dr Margaret Simmons, carer Marie Smith and medical student Lily Kang.

ACV/GARDS executive and volunteer members were joined by carers, a local mesothelioma sufferer and long-time Traralgon oncologist Dr John Scarlett, all of whom shared their stories and expertise with students.

As the long-time Chief Executive Officer/Secretary of ACV/GARDS, Vicki Hamilton OAM knows only too well the devastation of these illnesses, having lost two family members to asbestos disease – her father and her grandfather.

Monash Rural Health researcher and sociologist Dr Margaret Simmons, who teaches a social perspective on health to medical students, calls on Ms Hamilton and her team each year to share their expertise with local students as part of the course’s exploration of respiratory health.

Ms Hamilton, a committed educator, said many of these students had limited knowledge of asbestos diseases, the risks of asbestos exposure and the impact of a diagnosis on not only a patient but their entire support system.

Dr Simmons said it was vital students understood the issue of asbestos in terms of its impacts on health, some of which may not arise for years, or even decades after exposure.  “We are very proud and appreciative of the strong partnership we have developed with Vicki and her team, and of their passionate input into the course,” she said.

“The work of ACV/GARDS is so important in this area and students often comment on how little they knew about the product; they are surprised at how extensively it was used in the past and often shocked, that despite its dangers being so widely known, asbestos is still not banned in many countries.”

"This is important stuff for medical students to know because when a patient comes to them when they are practising, they will have these people’s lives in their hands..."

Ms Hamilton said the information provided helped students no matter where they end up practising in Australia. “This disease is on the rise all over Australia and the world; particularly given the increase in ‘do it yourself’ home renovations, since asbestos was used so widely in the building and construction industry,” she said.

Overseas imports present a further risk, according to Ms Hamilton. “Increasingly, imports from overseas countries that have not banned asbestos, like Australia did in 2003, are coming into Australia in a range of products including cement fibre board used for flooring, children’s crayons, ceramic tiles and brake linings, which is alarming in terms of future exposures,” she warned.

Dr Simmons said that while ACV/GARDS informed students about the devastating impacts of asbestos on people’s health – and what doctors need to be aware of – the organisation also highlighted “in a positive and compassionate way” the many services it offers sufferers and their families.

Almost 90 students attended this week’s tutorial and student feedback was positive. “I talk about the physical, emotional and social aspects,” she said. “It is not just about the illness itself but about everything that comes with it and how the approach of a doctor can affect the medical path these sufferers and their families travel.”

“This is important stuff for medical students to know because when a patient comes to them when they are practising, they will have these people’s lives in their hands and I want them to be clear that each decision they make should be made as though they are treating one of their own family members,” she said.

Ms Hamilton said mesothelioma rates in the Latrobe Valley were seven times the state average. “Every second person knows someone who has been affected here,” she said, adding that asbestos disease included various forms of mesothelioma as well as lung cancer, asbestosis and pleural plaque disease.

“We advise the students that a really good start is to take a holistic approach to their patient – when someone presents with symptoms, ask them where they worked, where did their family members work and look at the possibilities – patients can sometimes expect doctors just to ‘know’ things but they don’t just ‘know’, they need help from the patients,” Vicki said. “It goes both ways – we also support sufferers and their families to advocate strongly for themselves when they go to the GPs.”

Ms Hamilton said asbestos disease used to be poorly diagnosed and a silent killer but this had improved, in part as a result of increased awareness and education. As an organisation ACV/GARDS links in with the Gippsland Cancer Care Centre about new immunotherapy treatments and continually builds its own knowledge base. Ms Hamilton said ACV/GARDS also had medical equipment it could supply to sufferers to make them more comfortable.

She said she was encouraged by the responses of students she speaks to about asbestos diseases. “I once had a student approach me eight years after one of these talks and he said the tutorial had always stayed in his consciousness…that’s why I do this work,” she said.

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