U of T Medicine Establishes Office Dedicated to Indigenous Medical Education

Office of Indigenous Medical EducationThis article is a modified version of the one that appears in U of T Medicine's print issue.

Bringing cultural safety to the classrooms at U of T is one of the objectives of the Faculty of Medicine's new Office of Indigenous Medical Education. Established this spring, the Office is supported by a team of Aboriginal staff, that includes program coordinator Rochelle Allen, elder Cat Criger and Drs. Jason Pennington (B.Sc. ’94, M.Sc. ’96, MD ’00) and Lisa Richardson, who are the Faculty's curricular co-leads in Indigenous health education.

"As physicians, we can often get trapped by our assumptions about patients. This can certainly be true when caring for Aboriginal patients, because there is general ignorance about Aboriginal culture, but also a long history that can cause Aboriginals to mistrust doctors," said Pennington in his office, which he is still moving into.

The fact the Office exists is one example of how the Faculty is supporting the growth of Aboriginal health professionals. U of T Medicine is also graduating more knowledgeable non-Aboriginal practitioners by integrating Aboriginal health issues and concepts into the undergraduate medicine curriculum in the form of lectures, panels, research projects and electives.

The Office has made tremendous progress in a short amount of time, said Pennington, who notes the biggest pressure to do more is coming from undergraduate medical students. Well before the Office’s creation, students created an elective in Aboriginal health, which continues to be student-run and attracts approximately 30 students each year.

One of those students who helped to run the elective is Marc Labelle, himself an indigenous physician in training.

"In my first year, there was maybe 15 minutes in one lecture that talked about Aboriginal health —that's just not enough," he said. He has noticed how the new Office is already starting to have an effect through the Faculty. "There is so much more being done. We even had an elder at orientation week, who gave a talk as part of the Dean's Breakfast."

These opportunities are important, explained fellow Aboriginal student Victor Vien, because they start the process towards cultural safety.

"I know a lot of my fellow students would be happy to work in Aboriginal communities, but they just don't feel they have the cultural competencies they would require to be effective," said Vien. "By introducing Aboriginal health issues throughout our curriculum, we can start to build that understanding."

Extending the lessons of indigenous health is important not only to Aboriginal communities, explained Pennington, but benefits all marginalized communities who may face diminished care because of the biases of their health care providers.

"I work in Scarborough where there is great cultural diversity," said Pennington, who is also a surgeon at the Scarborough Hospital. "I regularly use cultural safety techniques with patients from different ethnic backgrounds; it's really helpful in helping me better understanding their concerns."


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