British Columbia

Pandemic has increased health-care inequity for Indigenous women, report finds

A new report into the barriers that Indigenous women deal with while trying to access health care during the pandemic describes serious shortcomings, including racism.

Women said they lacked access to mental health support and other medical services

A health-care worker administers COVID-19 vaccinations to members of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation on Vancouver's North Shore in March. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A new report into the barriers facing Indigenous women trying to access health care during the pandemic describes serious issues including racism and lack of access to mental health services.

The report titled In Her Circle also suggests ways to provide better health-care services.

About 43 indigenous women and two-spirit individuals spoke about their experiences through telephone and online interviews in November 2020.

Researchers found many Indigenous women said changes to services because of the COVID-19 pandemic led to "limited access to mental health care, medical services, and other health-related programming, including face-to-face appointments."

The new report comes after former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond released her findings into anti-Indigenous racism in the healthcare system in February.

Turpel-Lafond found a high portion of Indigenous people in the province lack access to family doctors and other primary-care services, and instead end up in emergency rooms dealing with health crises.

Addressing racism and cultural safety

Kim van der Woerd is the co-founder of Reciprocal Consulting which partnered with the B.C. Women's Health Foundation to produce the report. 

"Any inequities that were present were just made larger because of the pandemic," she says. "A contributor to inequity is the fact that we have pretty pronounced racism within the system of health care."

The report found some patients felt unfairly singled out for possibly having a COVID-19 infection because they are Indigenous.

"I'd rather tell people I have a sexually transmitted infection ... than having to go get tested for COVID. I don't know … there was something about it that was really stigmatizing," said one participant.

According to the report, some women described interactions that "modelled cultural ignorance and racist sentiment, particularly in emergency rooms."

Van der Ward says there are opportunities to make positive changes including an outreach plan to help individuals get access to technology for medical appointments, particularly in areas without adequate internet service, and hiring Indigenous patient liaison workers who can serve as patient advocates to help foster trust in the medical system.

Bad experiences

The report studied the experiences of Indigenous women and two-spirit individuals from all five health-care regions in B.C. 

Nikki Sanchez who is Indigenous, Pipil/Maya and Irish/Scottish, described how she ended up being taken to Royal Jubilee hospital in Victoria by ambulance three weeks ago suffering from pelvic pain but says her concerns were dismissed.

"Really bewildered. I was in so much pain already."

Sanchez said once at the hospital she laid down on the hospital floor because of her pain but alleges hospital staff told her to get up.

"Basically started yelling at me saying that if I didn't get up, they were going to have security come and remove me."

She said her experience is an example of what Indigenous women can face when trying to access services.