HOPE’S STORY: AUSTRALIA'S FIRST PEER WORKER
I had just finished a Diploma of Community Services and was applying for a few jobs. Out of the blue, a friend who was working at NUAA told me there was a new role going, called a “Peer Worker”. This was a first for Australia and there was a year’s funding to see if it would work.
The idea was that, as a member of the community of people who used drugs, I would know and understand my community and its needs, and be able to respectfully help people. The only catch was that I would have to “out” myself as a drug user.
The Peer Worker role was based at two Opiate Treatment Program (OTP) clinics and would be the bridge between the workers -- doctors and nurses -- and people on a methadone or buprenorphine program.
There were a number of Peer Worker models, but the first one we trialled meant I could not be dosed at the clinics I worked at. We have since got other models up and running, but for me, I was working out of an Opiate Replacement Treatment (ORT) clinic, but personally using a private GP/chemist combo.
I was warned it would be a tough gig. Apparently, the nurses were not keen on the idea of Peer Workers. It was thought that after the year was up, there would be so much resistance that the job would be canned.
I thought: “One year my arse! This is a fantastic idea and needs to happen all around the world!” I saw it as a challenge and I knew I was up to it.
There was no doubt the first 6 months were rough. We had to work out what a Peer Worker was – from a user point of view -- and what a Peer Worker should be doing. It was important to us that the Peer Worker was about meaningful representation, not just ticking a box. We wanted to have a genuine say in how services were run.
A big part of my job was to support the hep C treatment trials that were going to where people who used drugs were -- at ORT clinics -- and help people get tested and treated. Even though it was the old interferon treatment, we still managed to get take-up tripled.
The culture of the clinics also changed with a more respectful and inclusive approach. The waiting rooms were calmer -- there was not as much drama and people were relaxed. The Workplace and Safety incidents -- from violence to accidents -- were much lower than at clinics where there was no Peer Worker. Dosing procedures became less punitive and bullying reduced. People were grateful to have a Peer Worker to turn to as a source of info and to make complaints to, all without judgement. Peer Workers empowered people.
From my point of view, the biggest challenge was improving my relationship with the dosing staff. The nurses knew I was on methadone and would freak out if I even came to the door of the dosing room. It took a few years to build trust. It was more difficult because the nurses would come and go constantly. I was always dealing with new people.
After the year was up, the Ministry of Health saw that the evidence showed that Peer Workers work, and the project was funded again.
After all that work, I thought Peer Workers would be everywhere by now. It’s a model proven to work and I believe every clinic and service should have one. If you’re reading this and you have a Peer Worker at your service, please use them! They can’t change the service unless you tell them what needs changing. If you would like to try Peer Worker as a career, I would recommend going to TAFE to study Community Services, or perhaps joining NUAA as a volunteer to get some experience.
I have been working at NUAA for nearly 10 years now. I love my job. I hear all sorts of things and sometimes all I can offer is a judgement-free ear. Other times, I can do something to change things for people. I am very proud of all the people I have encouraged to get tested and treated for hep C. It’s turned out to be the perfect path for me.