Honouring Transformative Work in Indigenous Health

Jun 21, 2017
Erin Howe

Professors Jason Pennington and Lisa RichardsonProfessors Jason Pennington and Lisa Richardson Two professors who are building and supporting Indigenous student admissions and fostering culturally safe spaces within the Faculty of Medicine are being recognized for their transformative impact.

Indigenous Health Education co-leads Professors Lisa Richardson and Jason Pennington have been honoured with the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons’ 2017 Dr. Thomas Dignan Indigenous Health Award.

Established in 2014, the award is named after Dr. Thomas Dignan, a Mohawk physician from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, who was a tireless advocate for eradicating disparities in health outcomes and inequities in health care among Indigenous people. Dignan is chair of the Royal College Indigenous Health Advisory Committee and the co-founder of the Native Physicians Association of Canada.

“This is a tremendous honour in light of all the other Indigenous physicians across Canada doing wonderful work, including the award’s namesake,” says Pennington. “The award’s first two recipients, Dr. Nadine Caron, a professor of surgery at the University of British Columbia and co-director of the UBC Centre for Excellence in Indigenous Health and Dr. Karen Hill, faculty lead in Aboriginal Peoples Health in McMaster University’s Department of Family Medicine, have both been mentors to me.”

In 2013, Richardson and Pennington co-founded the Office of Indigenous Medical Education (OIME), a culturally safe space where students can access traditional teachings. They also led the development of the Indigenous Student Application Program (ISAP).

“We needed to recruit and support Indigenous students in medical school,” says Richardson, a professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine. “It was common not to have any Indigenous or self-identified Indigenous students across four years of the MD program. Now we admit several students a year.”

Richardson and Pennington, a professor in the Division of General Surgery and staff surgeon at the Scarborough General Hospital, also championed the need to create additions to the curriculum and other opportunities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, trainees and practicing physicians to learn about indigenous health and help them practice culturally safe care.

The pair supports a student-run Indigenous Health elective that gives first and second year medical students opportunities to engage with leaders in the Aboriginal community, learn about the challenges faced by Aboriginal people here in Canada and better understand Aboriginal culture. There is also an elective in Urban Indigenous Health for third and fourth year students.

Richardson and Pennington are excited to see the impact their work is having. There’s a growing commitment among students to learn about Indigenous health and help improve health outcomes in Indigenous communities. One example of this is the Indigenous Health in Ontario: An introductory guide for medical students handbook, its editor, Mi’kmaq MD student Sarah Park, will begin the third year of the program in the fall.

As well, the first two students recruited through ISAP have graduated and are now doing their residencies.

“It’s wonderful that they chose to go into different programs, and that they’re both still engaged with our office,” says Richardson, who is also a general internal medicine physician at Toronto General Hospital. “They’re both involved with admissions, interviews, and helping us do teaching sessions, so we’re very proud of them.”

One of those graduates is Ryan Giroux, who is about to begin a residency in the Department of Paediatrics. He was a national leader for the Canadian Federation of Medical Students’ Indigenous health education. His work has led to the establishment of student representatives at universities across the country who are moving forward with indigenous health.

“These students are quite amazing and it’s reassuring to see these young doctors who have their own ideas to make positive changes in Indigenous health education. Many of our students have been active in helping Indigenous and non-Indigenous students understand the issues our community faces,” says Pennington.

Richardson also says there’s great understanding and recognition of the importance of Indigenous health across the Faculty, as well as incredible support from the Dean’s Office and the leadership team. She looks forward to expanding the continuum of training, support and scholarly work across the Faculty, including through Postgraduate Medical Education and faculty development.

Richardson and Pennington are also working with organizations representing other medical schools to advance Indigenous health. Additionally, Richardson is part of an advisory group within the Royal College that will change the way health care practitioners are taught, recruited and supported. 

As she and her co-lead continue their work, Richardson says it’s important to connect with Elders, traditional teachers and local community members.

“We must remember to turn to them for guidance and keep that in the forefront of everything that we do in the office,” she says, pointing to the important role of Elders at U of T. “Cat Criger is amazing traditional teacher who’s done a lot of work for our office,” says Richardson. “Diane Longboat started an office of Indigenous Health within the Faculty that became First Nations House 25 years ago. She was present at OIME’s official opening in 2013. We’re also speaking to our Elders locally about some other exciting projects, like how we can involve our medical students in the traditional Indigenous Garden at Hart House.”

Click hereto watch a video of Richardson and Pennington speaking about their work. 

Click here to hear Richardson and Pennington speak with Matt Galloway on CBC's Metro Morning. 

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