NRHSN 21st Birthday Ambassador - Dr James Fitzpatrick

Cooee June 2016 James Fitzpatrick

Dr James Fitzpatrick checks a young patient at the Muludja Remote Community School in Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia. Picture by Jasmine Raisbeck, Telethon Kids

Caring for kids

The children of the Fitzroy Valley in Western Australia have a strong advocate in paediatrician Dr James Fitzpatrick.

Dr Fitzpatrick has been working with local communities, schools and health services to address the problem of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).

He founded PATCHES Paediatrics, which, as the name suggests, knits together all these stakeholders to ensure a holistic approach to giving children a better start at life.

“If we can apply the law of love with scientific precision, we can achieve great wonders in our lifetime,” he says, quoting Gandhi. “And that’s exactly what’s being carried out in the Fitzroy Valley to overcome FASD.”

When he first started on this journey, the rate of FASD in the Fitzroy Valley region was 20 times that in the general population of Australia. Rivers of grog were literally poisoning the futures of children – from the womb.

In partnership with Aboriginal leaders, Dr Fitzpatrick and his team have played a leading role in educating women about the dangers of drinking while pregnant, including birth defects as well as developmental and childhood learning disorders.

This education and prevention strategy has seen rates of drinking in pregnancy reduce from 60 per cent in 2009 to less than 20 per cent in 2015.

The team has also been focused on running school-based health clinics to help young people reach their educational potential. In February 2016, PATCHES Paediatrics began operating Perth’s first FASD diagnosis and treatment service, including services to the WA justice system.

“The key to our model is to simplify a complex process of referral and multidisciplinary assessment. We bring together a team that may include a paediatrician, psychiatrist, neuropsychologist, occupational therapist, speech pathologist and social worker as a ‘one stop shop’ for multidisciplinary assessment, and provide a single, simple to understand diagnostic and treatment report,” Dr Fitzpatrick explains.

“In this way, rather than deconstructing a person through separate assessments, we try to ‘put them back together again’ while providing practical and evidence-based therapy solutions.”

Dr Fitzpatrick has certainly been walking the talk since his days as a medical student in 2000, when he was Chair of the National Rural Health Student Network and a member of the SPINRPHEX Rural Health Club at the University of Western Australia.

Back then he helped to establish the Carnarvon Children's Festival in WA in response to alarming rates of youth suicide (sadly, the issue of youth suicide continues to haunt Indigenous communities, highlighted by the death of a 10-year-old girl in Looma WA earlier this year prompting this article by Dr Fitzpatrick).

For his commitment to Indigenous health, Dr Fitzpatrick was named Young Australian of the Year in 2001.

He is currently Director of Telethon Kids Institute’s FASD research program, a member of the Australian National Advisory Council on Alcohol and Drugs, and inaugural Chair of the Australian FASD Clinical Network.

See his inspiring TEDx talk