The primary focus of University of Toronto’s newly-opened Office of Indigenous Medical Education (OIME) is “to provide a welcoming home for Indigenous medical students,” according to Mark Hanson, associate dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Finances.
At the opening on Feb. 3, Hanson admitted “our numbers are small right now.” When pressed for numbers, he said they have just more than five Indigenous students in their medical school. This isn’t at all surprising considering the high drop-out rates among Aboriginal youth, combined with the well-known deficiencies in funding provided by the federal government for First Nations education, and the lack of Aboriginal physician role models.
Not only does U of T want to change this, but they also want to ensure the provision of a higher quality of health care to Indigenous people.
They’ve staffed the OIME with four Aboriginal people, including elder Cat Criger. Rochelle Allan, a member of the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, is the Indigenous Peoples Undergraduate Medical Education Program Coordinator. Dr. Jason Pennington is working with Dr. Lisa Richardson as Curricular Co-leads for Indigenous Health Education. Richardson is Anishnawbe from Killarney, Ont. Pennington is a member of the Wendake First Nation in Quebec and a graduate of U of T’s medical school. He’s also a general surgeon at Scarborough General Hospital.
“We’re introducing Indigenous health and experiences,” said Pennington, “including the social determinants of Aboriginal health. We’re giving a little bit of a history lesson, talking about residential schools, poverty, poor water quality. We’re also talking about what is probably the largest factor that affects all these things - the lack of self-determination and treaties not being honoured.”
“We also want to bring in Aboriginal health concepts like the medicine wheel,” Pennington continued, “that can be incorporated into medicine.” He believes that Aboriginal people have a lot to teach western medicine about healing and about treating the whole person, rather than the disease. The administration is very open to this, he said.
A session on cultural safety is being introduced to teach medical students, “how to provide care in a culturally safe manner, recognizing their biases to the patient’s background or religion or race or sexual orientation, being aware of it so that their interaction with the patient can be much more therapeutic. Make the patient feel much more safe in their interaction with the doctor.”
Pennington acknowledges that the school drop-out rate and the poverty among Aboriginal people needs to be addressed.
Outreach to the communities to show young people the possibilities for a career in medicine is imperative and “that’s one of the things our office wants to do,” he said. But, “it takes time and a lot of hours and a lot of people to do that. It’s going to be a long process.” What he hopes is that physicians trained at U of T will take action to fight for social change once they become aware of the issues facing Aboriginal people.
The Summer Mentorship Program in the Health Sciences is another way, said Mark Hanson, that U of T tries to level the playing field. A four-week program for students of Aboriginal or African ancestry, it includes job shadowing, lectures and hands-on activities in Dentistry, Medicine and Nursing. Applicants have to be at least 16 years of age and are required to have completed a Grade 10 or 11 Science course, or a Grade 10 or 11 Social Sciences and Humanities course.
There are also a number of bursaries and scholarships available to indigenous students. The OIME, said Hanson, will make sure Indigenous students are aware of these opportunities, as well as the financial aid available to all students with high financial need.
Pennington said there are no plans to teach specific Indigenous healing methodologies. “It’s good for the students to learn about Indigenous healing concepts,” he said, “but actually to make them think they’re going to be traditional healers? No, I don’t think so!”
Music for the opening was provided by the Metis Fiddler Quartet and women’s hand drum group, Spirit Wind.