We need to stop the epidemic of racist health care against Indigenous peoples
Hill Times February 10 2020
There is a pervasive stereotype in the health-care system that Indigenous peoples are all drunks. Every single Indigenous person that I know has personal or family experiences of falling victim to this stereotype. Dr. Janet Smylie reflected in her report in 2015, “First Peoples, Second Class Treatment,” that many Indigenous peoples endure racism when seeking services in hospital emergency wards.
I have endured racism in provincial/territorial health care. In more than a few emergency wards across this country, admitting personnel have asked me how much I’ve had to drink, regardless of the symptoms that I was experiencing. I’m sure this is not the first or second question that all Canadians are asked when they are in pain in a hospital.
I can name an Indigenous individual in every province and territory in the past year who died in the health-care system as victims of systemic racism, meaning that the refusal of service or less quality service they received, contributed to their early deaths.
The good news is that health-care leaders across the country are recognizing this challenge, taking responsibility and demanding their organizations change. Northern Health Region in British Columbia, the Canadian Institute for Health Information, and the Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto are leaders in this effort.
I had the misfortune to need Canada’s health-care system last December: I slipped on the ice in Toronto and fractured my wrist. I had the fortunate and unique experience of being admitted to the Michael Garron Hospital. It was one of the best health-care experiences in my life. I experienced no racism, at no point did any staff member talk down to me, assume I was drunk, belittle my pain, nor treat me any less than any other Canadian.
I’m still talking about it because it was such a unique experience for me. The emergency nurse asked me where I’m from, and she knew my community must be on the West Coast. The attending physician asked if I felt culturally safe in the care of his emergency department. He also wanted to know if my friend who brought me in (she is also First Nations) felt safe, as well. It was amazing to know my safety mattered. What may sound like a normal interaction to you, was gold-star service to me.
Things are changing in Canada. But while some regions and organizations in Canada aim to increase their culturally competent health-care services, the ones who refuse to see their problems are falling further behind.
That’s what racism looks like in health and this is the most urgent problem facing health-care organizations and leaders: how to ensure and demand that frontline providers deliver the care and empathy that Indigenous patients deserve. That’s culturally competent services.
More people have died of racism in the health-care system in the past decade than from SARS. Imagine if we gave the disease of racism in health care the same attention that we are giving to the coronavirus, considering the spread rate of racist stereotypes in health care. We are struggling with more than one “patient zero” in racism, we are struggling with multiple stereotypes that Indigenous peoples are drunk, won’t follow protocols, won’t understand the directions, and more. There’s multiple ways that racism is spreading.
Imagine if Canada committed to eradicating racism in health care with communication, action plans, credible leaders sharing how to act against it and protect yourself, urgent funding, clear human resources policies … just like combatting an epidemic? We need to stop the epidemic of racist health care.