Harnessing philanthropic support to raise community health

Garang M Dut’s studies at the University of Melbourne were generously supported by the PSA Insurance Scholarship – made possible by the Victorian Medical Insurance Agency Limited – which supports exceptional medical and dentistry students through residential scholarships.

Garang Dut receiving the Roth Segal John Monash Harvard Scholarship
Garang Dut receiving the Roth Segal John Monash Harvard Scholarship.

Doctor Garang Dut is working to ensure no communities are left behind in our healthcare system. Thanks in part to generous philanthropic support, Garang has positively impacted many lives – from improving indigenous eye health, to increasing hepatitis B awareness among Melbourne’s Sudanese community and, developing nation-wide pandemic policies.

Garang experienced the devastating impacts of poor healthcare firsthand during his childhood years in a Kenyan refugee camp, leading to his lifelong passion for equitable healthcare. It was also there that the South Sudanese native had his first rudimentary experiences with education. His class notes, written in the dirt of open-air classrooms, were blown away by the wind each night.

Many years later – after resettling in Australia with his family and earning himself several health qualifications – Garang became a surgical resident at the Alfred hospital.

He focused his attention on improving vaccination rates among Melbourne’s Sudanese community, particularly for hepatitis B. While Garang says Australia’s policy around the vaccine is “very sound”, he noticed that those who moved to Australia later in life were sometimes falling through the cracks.

“It's optimally targeted for a population that was born here,” explained Garang, “so when people come into Australia and they are beyond a particular age category, they may not be captured. And if they have low health literacy, they are not able to go and ask for the vaccine.”

Garang’s team developed a mass campaign that educated Melbourne’s Sudanese population about hepatitis B, and ultimately encouraged them to ask their doctor about the vaccine. “That eventually worked really well, particularly when messages were targeted through a language that they could understand and through radio series where they tend to listen,” said Garang.

Garang’s incredible work landed him a role within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and his experience in educating minority communities about the importance of vaccination would become incredibly useful.

Over time, COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy became an issue that the government and health organisations across the country scrambled to rectify – and Garang played an instrumental role in tackling this issue. He was seconded to the Australian Department of Health to work on pandemic policy.

Garang explains that often, vaccine hesitancy comes down to where our communities are seeking their information.

“A lot of people tend to rely on those within their social network for information,” explained Garang. “They don't necessarily have to be health practitioners or well-informed about COVID-19. They just have to be trusted people, such as their parents, their children or even a religious leader. And knowing this has been really important with how I targeted messages,” said Garang.

“I facilitated the convening of seven doctors of South Sudanese background, as well as leaders of community associations and religious leaders, to have a Zoom conference that was broadcast on Facebook so that people could field questions in real time and have their concerns addressed.”

This online event preceded a community-led vaccination drive which was very successful – as opposed to traditional government-led initiatives.

It created a comfortable place where people were less hesitant. They saw familiar faces, and the language barriers were no longer an issue with the booking process, as well as consenting to get the vaccine. It was fully facilitated by the community with the support of government. On September 11, we were able to provide 120 vaccines in a pilot clinic which was really successful.

– Doctor Garang Dut

Garang says the many scholarships he received during his studies opened up opportunities that would not have otherwise been possible. One such scholarship was the Kwong Lee Dow Scholar Award he received during his final year of high school – recognising his exceptional performance, exposing him to the University of Melbourne, and securing his place studying a Doctor of Medicine.

He also received the residential PSA Insurance Scholarship – funded by the Victorian Medical Insurance Agency Limited – which enabled him to live in a college. “I could spend more time at the University, in the library, working on my own, and participating in self-directed learning such as practicing clinical skills with my fellow students,” said Garang.

Philanthropic support also helped Garang gain work experience during his studies as a research assistant to Harold Mitchell Chair of Indigenous Eye Health, Professor Hugh Taylor – an esteemed ophthalmologist specialising in Indigenous eye health. “Our work influenced Federal policy on Indigenous eye care,” said Garang. “That pushed me towards getting training in policy, so I could influence high level policy that has a bearing on so many people.”

This crucial experience inspired Garang to continue his education with post-graduate studies – completing an MBA and Master of Public Health at Harvard. This in turn led to his career in health policy where he’s had such an immense impact.

While the scholarships he received offered financial and practical support, Garang also perceived them as a vote of confidence in his capabilities – encouraging him to continue pursuing excellence as he looked ahead to his career.

Scholarships create a community of scholars and are a real symbol of support for people who aspire to move beyond their training to impact communities and society more broadly. It's an endorsement that what you are pursuing is worth it and something that you should continue doing.

– Doctor Garang Dut

“Everything I do comes back to my hope that the work I do can create immediate to medium-term policy implications. To me, success is defined by how your presence or being in the world has made a difference.”

Thanks to his determination, and the generous commitment of the Victorian Medical Insurance Agency Limited to support students like Garang, it’s safe to say that Garang has certainly achieved such success.

Garang is currently based at the Australian National University (ANU) as a Fellow in Health.