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October 2021

Soc Sci Med. 1997 Oct; 45(7): 1005-15.

"Painting a Leonardo with finger paint": medical practitioners communicating about death with aboriginal people.

Weeramanthri T.

Menzies School of Health Research, Casuarina, NT, Australia.

This article describes 19 semi-structured interviews with medical practitioners working in the Northern Territory of Australia. The interviews explored the practitioners' perceptions of the differences between Aboriginal and Western beliefs about disease causation and death. The interviews further explored how these perceptions affected the practitioners' communication of mortality information and their response to the practical and legal tasks of reporting deaths to the coroner, requesting postmortems and certifying death. Two key themes emerged. The first was the variety of interpretations placed by medical practitioners on the concept of "respect", and the difficulty they had in showing that respect in light of competing Western legal and professional obligations. The second theme was that medical practitioners felt that Aboriginal people's notions of "blame" did not match their own; this led some medical practitioners to become despondent, whilst others negotiated this tension creatively. Use of the word "blame" almost solely to refer to the Aboriginal discourse served to exoticise the Aboriginal process and obscure its areas of similarity with the Western discourse of "responsibility".

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