Aboriginal people are less likely than other members of society to visit the doctor or seek health care, possibly because health care workers are unfamiliar with aboriginal culture, according to B.C.'s Health Services Authority.  

The Indigenous Cultural Safety Training Program aims to combat that by offering cultural sensitivity training to all employees of British Columbia's health care system.

"A very common issue in the health care system is bias and stereotyping," says Leslie Varley, director of aboriginal health with the Provincial Health Services Authority.

"When an aboriginal person comes into emergency, and they're stumbling a bit or slurring their words, the first assumption is, 'This person is drunk,' and they might not look further than that. But they might have a health problem or they might be diabetic and in need of health care."

Varley says that for many aboriginal people, being subject to these assumptions and the historical legacy of colonialism like residential schools and Indian hospitals have created a sense of distrust for the health care system.

She believes that if health care workers are aware of this and can address it, it might lead to better health care outcomes for First Nations people in B.C.

Training providers to accommodate

In addition to combating their own biases, the program teaches health care providers about some ways they can adjust their practice to better accommodate aboriginal patients.

Varley says some examples of this are allowing a traditional healer to supplement a hospital's work or a spiritual healer to play music or provide moral support.

"We're trying to support health care providers to let them know that these are part of traditional aboriginal healing and this is how we can respectfully support aboriginal patients and their families," Varley says.

Varley says one positive outcome she has heard of is that doctors are more willing to listen to aboriginal patients and "negotiate" on treatment, which could mean looking for cheaper medication or being more flexible about appointment scheduling so rural patients can make them on time.

Feedback positive so far

The program has been underway for much of 2015, and currently has trained about 20,000 of the estimated 100,000 people working in the provincial health care system.

Varley says that early feedback has been promising so far, especially when it comes to physicians.

"We've had a lot of evaluations come back and tell us this has transformed health care practice," she says.

"[Physicians] are sometimes perplexed, they ask, 'why aren't my aboriginal patients coming back? What's going on?' And now they're saying, 'A-ha, I get it, this is what I need to do to change my practice.'"

Varley says that while the training has been designed with the health care system in mind, it could be beneficial for anyone in Canadian society.

To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: New program trains doctors on sensitivity to First Nations