New Aboriginal health course bridges campus with communities

By hearing first-hand accounts of historical and systemic impacts on Aboriginal people’s health, students in UBC’s new Aboriginal Public Health course are learning how they can help improve health care systems.

The course launched this term in the School of Population and Public Health (SPPH) in the Faculty of Medicine. The course’s Aboriginal advisor from the Stz’uminus First Nation on Vancouver Island, Dr. Shannon Waters, trained at UBC in community medicine and helped shape the new course. The instructor, Dr. Patricia Spittal, is an associate professor in SPPH who is doing on-the-ground research in Aboriginal health. She leads the Cedar Project — a Canadian Institutes of Health Research-funded study of hepatitis C and HIV vulnerabilities among Aboriginal youth in Vancouver and Prince George who use drugs.

Spittal and the weekly Aboriginal guest speakers are sharing their knowledge with future health professionals and policy-makers. Speakers range from First Nations chiefs to health professionals and researchers. Students are learning they can help treat and prevent the spread of illness in Aboriginal populations by integrating mental, physical and emotional health treatments and by including the family and community in the healing process. Dr. Waters, through her role as the Director of Health Surveillance for Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health branch in B.C., set up a class visit to the Vancouver office of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to hear about the impact of H1N1 virus on Aboriginal communities.

Miranda Kelly is a member of the Sto:lo Nation’s Soowahlie Band in Chilliwack and is studying in SPPH’s Master of Public Health program. This course was one of the reasons she chose to come to UBC which has made a commitment in its new strategic plan, Place and Promise, to engage Aboriginal people in mutually supportive and productive relationships, and to work to integrate understandings of Indigenous cultures and histories into its curriculum and operations.

“There aren’t that many universities out there that have this type of [graduate] course in public health, so I think it’s really important that UBC is being a leader in this area,” says Kelly. “It’s opening up dialogue with First Nations and bridging between the campus and First Nations communities and leadership. The guest lecturers really bring that personal element to it, and you really feel their stories. Speaking to people who have actually lived through these experiences is so much more informative than reading it from a book.”

After graduation, Kelly sees herself working as an Aboriginal health practitioner in B.C. communities before eventually returning to her home community of Soowahlie. She hopes to play a role in giving Aboriginal communities more control and participation in planning, delivering and evaluating their health care programs.

Dr. Spittal noted this course advances the provincial government’s Transformative Health Change Accord goal of increasing the number of Aboriginal health practitioners working in B.C. This summer, the course will expand into a distance distributed learning format to reach even more students.

“Having one course dedicated to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal learners coming together to grapple with the existing disparities both on and off reserve is really critical if we are going to make any shifts in public health policy and practice and ethics,” says Spittal.