Introduction:  Medical students should be equipped with the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes to engage with local communities on placement, and later act as agents of change in addressing health system priorities and inequities. Determining what are the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes requires the medical school to collect input from the local communities they serve. This study describes the steps taken by the James Cook University (JCU) School of Medicine & Dentistry (SMD) to develop a systematic process for collecting input from a local Indigenous community.

Methods:  This 2011 study utilised a participatory action research design. An Indigenous Reference Group (IRG) consisting of 13 local Indigenous people including health professionals, Elders and community members was established by the JCU SMD in the North Queensland town of Mount Isa. ‘Yarning Circle’ discussions between SMD representatives and the IRG developed a Terms of Reference (ToR) to guide the engagement process, and negotiated reciprocal benefits to compensate participants for time involved in consultations and to promote sustainability.

Results:  A framework for engaging with the Mount Isa Indigenous community was developed. Benefits for the SMD included a list of the good and bad engagement strategies with the local Indigenous community. Benefits for the IRG members included assistance with grant applications, media skills and organizing a community-wide health event.

Conclusions:  Successful and sustainable community partnerships between a medical school and an Indigenous community can be achieved, with Indigenous researchers and community members guiding the engagement process, and for stakeholders to follow through in providing the negotiated reciprocal benefits. Having an established IRG should increase Indigenous input and participation into the medical curriculum, and into future research and community activities to improve the health of the Indigenous people.