Students in the University of British Columbia's health-related programs have a new requirement as part of their curriculum: a course designed to help them better connect with Indigenous patients.

Starting this year, first year students in dental hygiene, dentistry, dietetics, genetic counselling, medicine, nursing, midwifery, occupational therapy, pharmacy, physical therapy, and social work will learn about Indigenous history, cultural safety, and strategies for empathy in a series of online modules and interdisciplinary workshops.

Carrie Anne Vanderhoop, the education coordinator at UBC's Centre for Excellence for Indigenous Health who helped develop the curriculum, said the initiative is a direct response to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee's calls to action.

History of harm

The commission's 2015 report recommended that health care professionals undergo cultural competency training, and require medical and nursing schools to offer skills-based training in Indigenous health issues, history, and the legacy of residential schools.

"In the healthcare system specifically, there's been this history of harm and potential harm Indigenous people encounter when accessing healthcare," Vanderhoop explained.

Dakota Peacock, a first year medical student, said the introductory course was a welcome window into something he had learned little about.

"I knew pretty little about these affairs, and I still think I know very little about Indigenous culture," Peacock said.

'We're all human'

Part of curriculum includes students examining their own biases and being cognizant of how that affects patient care.

"We all come with our own biases. We're all human," he said. "We can lose some ability to better treat people from other cultural groups."

Vanderhoop said she hopes the learning won't stop after the first year, and says her institute is working with the different programs to integrate more program-specific and discipline-specific materials as the students continue their education.

She said opportunities also exist for medical professionals who have already graduated or have worked for years.

B.C.'s Provincial Health Services Authority administers a Indigenous cultural training program — called San'yas — for those professionals. Vanderhoop says thousands of professionals have completed the training so far, and licensing bodies are increasingly requiring recruits to take such competency training.