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Is there a pro-white bias in the Canadian health care system?

When it comes to health care, you’d expect all patients to be treated equally. The Hippocratic oath even states, “I will willingly refrain from doing any injury or wrong from falsehood… whatever may be the rank of those who it may be my duty to cure, whether mistress or servant, bond or free.” However, a new study has found that when it comes to aboriginals, the standard of care is lacking.

The study, First Peoples, Second Class Treatment, was released this week by the Wellesley Institute. It found well-documented disparities in aboriginal and non-aboriginal health care. Dr. Janet Smylie, lead author of the study, says negative stereotypes and an “unconscious pro-white bias” are partially to blame.

Substandard health care isn’t a new phenomenon for indigenous people, though — it’s rooted in early colonization and segregation. The rippling effects of colonization and the perceptions of aboriginal culture have spanned decades and continue to impact individuals to this day. The media continues to portray aboriginal individuals as drunkards or poor parents, leading to an inherent racism in Canadian society. These deep-rooted stereotypes have impacted how aboriginals are treated in everything from the education system to the health care system.

Receiving substandard health care is a problem in itself, but it’s the side effects of such treatment that are a potentially larger cause for concern. The treatment aboriginal individuals receive has caused some to delay necessary care because of their apprehension of being treated poorly. In some cases, diagnoses have been incorrect or delayed, leading to much more severe prognoses. Such was the case for one aboriginal woman, Carol McFadden, who sought treatment for a lump in her breast. She was originally told it was a clogged milk duct, and when the pain became more severe, she sought care again. Her doctor told her to check her mammography herself. She was eventually diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, which has metastasized to her liver. Had she received a diagnosis earlier, she may have been able to catch the cancer at an earlier stage.

Unfortunately a scenario like McFadden’s isn’t an anomaly for aboriginal individuals. That makes this study an important conversation starter on what can be done to improve the health care standards for the aboriginal population. Smylie recommends adding more aboriginal health care workers and offering “cultural-safety” training for non-aboriginal health care workers. Hospitals can also consider creating treatment programs and spaces specifically for aboriginal people. St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver recently created “Sacred Space,” a room for aboriginal patients that blends traditional treatments with modern medicine.

There is still a lot of room for improvement, but hopefully this study will shed light on this important topic and encourage conversation on how it can be improved. Unconscious bias can’t be remedied until it can be identified by the individual who holds it. Health care workers and our society in general could make huge strides by admitting our biases and putting a stop to stereotypes that are now impacting people’s health and subsequently their lives.

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