Northern Health is revamping its Aboriginal Health program, starting with a name change. The program will now be known as Indigenous Health. It’s all part of a plan to better serve First Nations at both the community and individual levels.
It’s a plan that makes sense, especially for Northern Health (NH), which serves more than 1/3 of BC’s First Nations population. The health authority serves 54 distinct First Nations and nine Tribal Councils, which together speak 17 different languages.
The undertaking goes much deeper than just changing a name. In July of 2015, all BC health authorities signed of Declaration of Commitment to increase cultural humility and cultural safety in their services. Since then, Dr. Margo Greenwood, Vice President of the Indigenous Health program, says they’ve been working to develop resources for staff as well as patients. She admits it can be tough to grapple with such abstract concepts.
“Making cultural safety and cultural humility real is a challenge because it’s both collective and individual to understand that and it requires us to really reflect on our own practice.”
To help people understand the impacts their biases can have on others, NH commissioned a video.
Greenwood says the impacts of bias – and even just ignorance – are very real. The end goal of this overhaul is to bridge the gap in health outcomes between First Nations and other BC residents. That starts with eliminating barriers to care, according to the First Nations Health Authority’s Regional Director Nicole Cross.
“If people are feeling like they’re welcomed, then they’re going to go and ask for help. If they don’t trust somebody, they’re not going to ask for help. When you’re divulging some of the most intimate details of your life to somebody when you’re accessing care, you want to be able to trust that individual.”
One major focus is having doctors, nurses and other health practitioners who are respectful of and sensitive to the cultural backgrounds of the people they’re serving. Cross says another important aspect is offering services that people need.
“Communities are developing these, these initiatives and these priorities – and we’re supporting them to implement them, which is a whole new shift. It’s not us telling communities what needs to be done. They’re telling us and we’re carrying out that work for them.”
Many of these recommendations are coming from Aboriginal Health Improvement Committees (AHICs). Originally initiated in 2005, there are now eight operating across northern BC. Cross says AHICs have helped push for increased mental health services as well as holistic approaches to health care that include indigenous knowledge.
Northern Health’s new Indigenous Health website contains tools and information for health practitioners and patients alike. Cross would like to see similar resources and training offered to first responders in the north as well. For Dr. Greenwood, it’s just the start.
“We have the opportunity to write a history that will be remembered for addressing inequities, for being inclusive and for achieving culturally safe health care service delivery. The work of Northern Health’s Indigenous Health Team seeks to create spaces for privileging the voices of Indigenous peoples, for celebrating diversity and for partnering with Indigenous people in realizing their optimal health and well-being,” she says. “It’s a societal change. It isn’t just one sector – it’s way bigger than that. Recognizing that history and recognizing that we all orient to the world differently and how do we do that respectfully with each other?”