Objective: To examine how OTDs and staff in rural and remote Indigenous health contexts communicate and negotiate identity and relationships, and consider how this may influence OTDs’ transition, integration and retention.
Method: Ten case studies were conducted in rural and remote settings across Australia, each of an OTD providing primary care in a substantially Indigenous practice population, his/her partner, co-workers and Indigenous board members associated with the health service. Cases were purposefully sampled to ensure diversity in gender, location and country of origin.
Results: Identity as ‘fluid’ emerged as a key theme in effective communication and building good relationships between OTDs and Indigenous staff. OTDs enter a social space where their own cultural and professional beliefs and practices intersect with the expectations of culturally safe practice shaped by the Australian Indigenous context. These are negotiated through differences in language, role expectation, practice, status and identification with locus with uncertain outcomes. Limited professional and cultural support often impeded this process.
Conclusion: The reconstruction of OTDs’ identities and mediating beyond predictable barriers to cultural engagement contributes significantly not only to OTDs’ integration and, to a lesser extent, their retention, but also to maximising effective communication across cultural domains.
Implications: Retention of OTDs working in Indigenous health contexts rests on a combination of OTDs’ capacity to adapt culturally and professionally to this complex environment, and of effective strategies to support them.