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Grace Lin (L) and Sarah Baker participated in Duncan's Aboriginal Day - photo courtesy of Grace Lin
Grace Lin (L) and Sarah Baker participated in Duncan's Aboriginal Day - photo courtesy of Grace Lin

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 8 | Aug. 3, 2006

Can Aboriginal Health Issues be Taught in a Classroom?

By Hilary Thomson

Not according to students, instructors and organizers of a new four-week, interprofessional “immersion” program that takes place in B.C. Aboriginal communities.

Called the Aboriginal Health Elective Program, the undergraduate course is the first of its kind in Canada, with virtually all course content designed by Aboriginal people. It is offered through UBC’s College of Health Disciplines and recognizes Aboriginal health-care workers and community members as experts in Aboriginal health.

“The program is an important step towards developing a concrete, proven Aboriginal health curriculum, which has been much needed here and in most Canadian universities,” says Dr. Evan Adams, director of the division of Aboriginal People’s Health, within the Department of Family Practice at UBC. “I dare say, without a proper curriculum, the typical health sciences student may be unable to intelligently discuss — let alone act upon  — Aboriginal health issues. I hope we are taking giant steps forward in changing this.”

The six-credit, intensive hands-on learning is offered in partnership with the Cowichan Band and the Ts’ewulhtun Health Centre, near Duncan on Vancouver Island; and the Mount Currie Band and Mount Currie Health Centre, near Pemberton. The program’s objective is to help all health sciences students better understand Aboriginal perspective on health and well-being, cultural and other factors that influence health in their communities and to encourage interprofessional teamwork.

“I believe these students are very fortunate to have this opportunity that no other student will get. That’s why these kinds of courses are needed at UBC,” says James Andrew, Faculty of Medicine Aboriginal programs co-ordinator and course instructor at Mount Currie. “For a student to truly understand the health of Aboriginal people they must also understand their culture, history and community first-hand.”

The program is part of a national strategy to address social accountability of medical schools, an initiative of the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada.

“I think it’s important for people to become aware of the positive things that we’re doing, such as daycare and a healthy children’s program,” says Myrna Wallace, a long-time Mount Currie resident who serves as community co-ordinator at the reserve’s health centre. “One month isn’t long enough, though, because the students are just getting comfortable in a new community and then it’s almost time for them to leave.”

In June, three students took the course in Cowichan.

“I’ve seen that many Aboriginal people either don’t have access to health care or are not treated with respect by practitioners,” says Bachelor of Science in Nursing student Sarah Baker, who has been a nurse for 18 years and has staffed the BC Nurseline that takes calls from patients around the province. “I’ve been waiting for an Aboriginal health course so I could learn how best to treat these patients in a culturally sensitive and effective way.”

Baker and third-year students Grace Lin, from the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Dante Wan, from the Faculty of Medicine, worked with Aboriginal health-care providers and community members. Learning sites included a local walk-in clinic, a pharmacy and a health centre on the reserve. The team also accompanied a community health nurse on home visits and traveled to the reserve on nearby Kuper Island, former site of a residential school.

Students also got involved in cultural activities such as drum making and Aboriginal Day, a cultural festival in Duncan, hosted by the Cowichan Band.

“The course was an awesome experience — a wonderful way to learn,” says 42-year-old Baker. Her experience has inspired her to do a master’s degree in First Nations health.

Lin was motivated to take the course because of her experience interacting with First Nations patients while doing Pharmacy internships.

“I realized that many First Nations people feel uneasy when questioned directly. I’ve learned to talk a bit about myself and to open up communication gradually.”

The 22-year-old says she was anxious at the outset and afraid she might say or do something culturally inappropriate.
“But we were welcomed. You just need to be honest and sensitive and look for ways to connect.”

Lin hopes to work in a small community after graduation in 2007.

Cathy Dewaal, a third-year Pharmaceutical Sciences student, is taking the course in Mount Currie.

“The highlight of this course for me so far, has been picking traditional plant medicines — such as wild raspberry leaves for stomach complaints — with one of the community members,” she says, adding that she now has a better idea of the challenges and problems that are unique to Aboriginal people.

Co-organized with UBC Division of Continuing Professional Development and Knowledge Translation, the program was funded by the B.C. Academic Health Council and Health Canada’s Primary Care Transition Fund and has received UBC Senate approval as a temporary course. Organizers will apply for permanent status following additional sessions and an evaluation.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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