On November 20-21, the University of Toronto hosted an Indigenous Health Conference, which brought together health care providers, policymakers and public health specialists. “Challenging Health Inequities” was the theme of the inaugural conference held in Toronto. As described by conference organizers, Indigenous people in Canada (First Nations, Inuit and Métis) experience significant health disparities on every major health indicator, including lower life expectancies and higher infant mortality rates while Indigenous peoples continue to be under-serviced for health care, and do not have the same access to healthcare providers as other Canadians.
According to Emmay Mah, who serves at the Program Manager for Dignitas International’s Aboriginal Health program, “the conference brought together a cross-section of health professionals and community leaders, creating a space for dialogue not only on health issues but other difficult issues that affect the health and well-being of Indigenous communities.”
Earlier this year, Dignitas International launched a First Nations health partnership initiative focusing on remote communities in Northern Ontario. As a first step, we are collaborating with the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority (SLFNHA) to develop a community health worker (CHW) program for remote communities in the Sioux Lookout area of Northwestern Ontario. This initiative will empower CHWs to address high priority health needs, such as diabetes, and will be implemented in First Nations communities with limited road access to hospitals and where health care is provided by nurses and physicians who fly-in on a rotating basis. In these communities, CHWs can be a vital frontline link between underserved residents and the primary health care system. For example, they can work with diabetic patients by measuring blood sugar levels, supporting adherence to prescribed treatment plans and flagging critical issues to nurses and physicians. CHWs are typically community members who speak the local language and stay for longer periods than non-First Nations health professionals.
At the conference, the Dignitas-SLFNHA project team, which included Ms. Janet Gordon and Drs. Ben Chan and Sumeet Sodhi, hosted a workshop on the CHW model by sharing international best practices and their potential application to remote First Nations communities. In addition, we held a discussion with a veteran First Nations community health professional, Ms. Mary Lou Winter, to share past and current experience in Sioux Lookout.
From a collaborative perspective, conferences like these present an important opportunity to share what our team is doing with the CHW model and to get a sense of the interest from the broader Indigenous community.
“It is a good way to gauge interest in our approach, which draws on international best practice. While we acknowledge that there is no one size fits all – the large turn out at our session confirmed that there is an openness amongst those working in Indigenous Health to look at what is out there globally to see what can be of use in our work here in Canada,” adds Emmay.
According to Dr. Ben Chan, “Community health worker programs have to be a key part of any strategy to build a sustainable health system in rural, underserved First Nations communities in Canada. We have a great opportunity to learn from the best programs in Africa, Asia and Indigenous communities abroad. These programs have perfected the art of taking local individuals with local knowledge and training them to handle many essential tasks in primary care.”
The Dignitas team will be heading to Alaska next week to begin their engagement with other leading programs internationally – a key first step to bringing international best practices to the Canadian context.