Tackling unconscious bias: U of A lectures give students a lesson in Indigenous health

Brandon Zhao was volunteering at a nursing station in a northern Ontario reserve last summer when he learned some of the children there thought they could die from the common cold.

'How they're being treated in hospital is unacceptable'

A new three-part lecture series at the University of Alberta focuses on the gaps in health care for Canada's Indigenous people. (Shutterstock/funnyangel)

Brandon Zhao was volunteering at a nursing station in a northern Ontario reserve last summer when he learned that some of the children there thought they could die from the common cold.

"Their younger brother, when he was four years old, passed away due to strep throat," said Zhao, who studies medicine at the University of Alberta.

"It's a very treatable infection so just hearing that these brothers were scared to get the common cold was really sad. It speaks to the fact that easily preventable diseases are having a big impact on Indigenous communities."

'They're sometimes neglected'

That experience inspired Zhao to educate his peers in the medical field. He has helped to organize a new lecture series on Indigenous health intended for doctors-in-training at the University of Alberta.

Hosted in partnership with the Medical Students Association and the Indigenous Health Initiatives Program, the three-part lecture series launches on campus Wednesday.

Brandon Zhao has helped to organize a new lecture series on Indigenous health intended for doctors-in-training at the University of Alberta. (Brandon Zhao)

Indigenous patients still face racism and unequal access to treatment across the country, Zhao said.

"I've had Indigenous people tell me about their experiences in health care and it's not close to what I've experienced," said Zhao, who serves as an officer of Indigenous Health for students in the U of A Faculty of Medicine.  

"How they're being treated in hospital is unacceptable. … They're sometimes neglected and that's the big stimulus for me to be passionate about this and bridge those gaps." 

The series will launch with a presentation on Indigenous women's health by Dr. Cassandra Felske-Durksen who is from the Métis Nation of Alberta and grew up in St. Albert, which was originally settled as a Métis community.

As a family physician with a special interest in Indigenous women's health and obstetrics, Felske-Durksen said pursuing a career in medicine was always deeply connected to her interest in helping Indigenous populations.

She considers advocacy and teaching to be part of her daily practice.

She said western medicine is assumed to be neutral and unbiased but it's not. She wants to see traditional teachings better integrated into health-care practises.

Dr. Cassandra Felske-Durksen, a family physician with a special interest in Indigenous women’s health and obstetrics, will launch the lecture series. (UBC Faculty of Medicine)
 

Modern health care needs to take steps to move away from beliefs that were instilled when Europeans began colonizing Indigenous peoples, she said.

"Why not share what I've learned in the hopes that other people don't make the mistakes that I have, because we're all going to make mistakes. That's what medical school is about."

Felske-Durksen splits her time between rural and urban practices.

She is currently building a new Edmonton-based practice with a focus on women and pediatric health at the Indigenous Wellness Clinic on the Royal Alexandra Hospital campus.

She also serves as a family physician at the Poundmaker's Lodge Treatment Centres as well as at the Alexander First Nation, located west of Morinville.

She said doctors need to recognize how inherent biases can affect how they treat patients.

"I could tell you so many stories, especially related to the topic of the presentation today," she said.

"Trying to decolonize birth, trying to decolonize prenatal care: There are very sad stories but also very happy stories where a woman is able to bring a new family member into the world in a very culturally centered context."