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Traditional medicine plays a role alongside Western medicine

Indigenous cultures have successfully used traditional healers and bush medicine for thousands of years. Many of these practices continue to be used today. When dealing with Indigenous patients, it will help you to be aware of these practices and to understand why they are important to Indigenous Australians. You’ll also have the opportunity to learn about a fascinating part of this ancient culture.

I realise all this sounds very different to all you doctors and nurses who worked so hard at university to get where you are today. You have studied so many books. But we are working towards the same goal of healing sick people and making them feel better in themselves, as you are. In that way we are equal.

Andy Tjilari, Ngangkari, Central Australia, talking to Australian Geographic

“Typically, if you are what they call a Nungkari, or traditional healer, you’re taught by your grandfather. But I didn’t have that. My teaching happened in dreams.” Danielle Arabena, Indigenous health and GPTQ Medical Educator.

Attitudes to Western medicine

For a variety of reasons, many Indigenous people mistrust Western medicine. One fear is that Western pain medications accelerate the dying process. This can interfere with the cultural belief that important knowledge and secrets are passed on at this life stage.

Indigenous patients may also have a lack of knowledge about side effects of common medications and a fear of how they are administered, particularly if done so intravenously. Another strong fear is that of retribution or ‘payback’ for the Indigenous person giving pain medication near the end of another Indigenous person’s life. Being aware of these worries is important when discussing treatment and medications with your Indigenous patients.

Ngangkari – traditional healers

The role of a traditional healer within Indigenous culture is highly regarded. Often healers are identified at birth, but for some, their talent for healing comes in other ways.

Indigenous community members place great faith in traditional healers, many believing they can cure many ills, be they mental, spiritual or physical. Traditional healers use bush medicine, but also use touch to heal the spirit and mind. Interestingly, many Ngangkari do not treat conditions such as drug addiction or diabetes, as these are illnesses resulting from colonisation. They have no Indigenous cultural basis to treat from.
Working in harmony with traditional healers is a great way to ensure your patients receive a holistic level of treatment embracing their cultural heritage. Seek advice from a local Aboriginal Health Worker or Elder about the traditional healers in your work area.


Some Indigenous communities believe some illnesses are caused by curses. These beliefs stem from ancient times when any number of occurrences, not just illnesses, were attributable to curses. If community members believe a person is cursed, the most common recourse is to visit a traditional healer.

Bush medicine

Bush medicine is used by most traditional healers in the prevention and treatment of a variety of illnesses. It’s primarily plant-based, using native barks, food, seeds and leaves as remedies. Used in Aboriginal cultures for thousands of years, most of this lore is passed down through stories and singing or dancing ceremonies. As a result, it can largely remain a mystery to non-Indigenous health care professionals.

Bush medicine is made and applied in a variety of ways. It can be crushed, heated, boiled, smoked, inhaled and applied to directly to the skin.

Five common Aboriginal bush medicines

  1. Goat’s foot (Ipomoea pes-caprae): used to treat stings. Plant leaves are crushed, heated and apply directly to the skin.
  2. Kangaroo apple (Solanum laciniatum): used to treat swollen joints. The fruit is a natural anti-inflammatory.
  3. Billy goat plum/Kakadu plum (Terminalia ferdinandiana): the Indigenous answer to the common cold. The fruit contains 50 times more vitamin C than an orange.
  4. Eucalyptus oil: extracted from eucalyptus leaves, the oil is used for a variety of treatments such as aches and fevers. Modern-day medicine uses it in throat lozenges and as a decongestant.
  5. Tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia): used as an antiseptic. The paper bark leaves are ground into a paste and applied to wounds and fungal infections. It is also brewed into tea for sore throats.

The role of traditional medicine today

Ngangkari has an important role to play alongside Western doctors in treating Indigenous patients. One South Australian four-year research project found a number of benefits to providing a ‘holistic two-way health care model’. They are:

  • a broader view of a patient’s condition
  • a lesser chance of misdiagnosis
  • a better patient experience
  • a greater compliance rate with Western medical treatments

Recommend reading

Indigenous health outcomes

Understanding kinship

Treating Indigenous patients

GPTQ Reconciliation Plan

Indigenous health training