Indigenous people in B.C. 75% more likely to end up in ER, report says

First Nations, Inuit and Metis people in B.C. don’t have equal access to preventive and primary medical care and end up with poorer health than non-Indigenous people, according to the latest report on anti-Indigenous racism in the health-care system.

The report, based on a data review and led by former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, suggests that too many Indigenous people in B.C. don’t have access to family doctors and other primary-care services, and instead end up in the emergency room dealing with health crises.

The report shows that Indigenous patients are 75 per cent more likely to visit the ER than anyone else in B.C.

“When you combine these factors with the overwhelming evidence of racism in the health-care system … it’s not difficult to see why health outcomes for Indigenous peoples are poorer,” Turpel-Lafond told reporters during a news conference Thursday.

“A full continuum of care and networks of First Nations-led primary care are needed to overcome the serious deficiencies we found for Indigenous peoples.”

She said it’s clear that B.C. needs to rebuild its health-care system to one “that does not have racism entrenched in it.”

Turpel-Lafond was appointed last June to investigate anti-Indigenous racism in the health-care system in response to allegations that hospital emergency staff were playing a “game” where they would guess the blood-alcohol content of Indigenous patients.

Her initial report, titled In Plain Sight, was released in November. Though investigators weren’t able to substantiate allegations about the guessing “game,” they found widespread racism, stereotyping and discrimination against First Nations, Inuit and Metis patients.

The team’s final report is based on data uncovered during the investigation as well as measurements of how the system is working for Indigenous peoples.

Minister vows to ‘rip out’ effects of racism

Turpel-Lafond said the review shows that Indigenous patients are less likely to have access to crucial medical services like screening for cancer and prenatal care. She said it’s not uncommon for Indigenous women to arrive at the hospital in labour without having had any prenatal examinations.

First Nations people were more likely to be admitted to hospital from the ER and, once they were discharged, were also more likely to be readmitted for the same reason within 30 days, the report says.

Indigenous children are also less likely to see a dentist for regular checkups, and are up to 9.5 times more likely to be hospitalized for treatment of cavities.

This comes as no surprise to Neil Belanger, executive director of the BC Aboriginal Network on Disability Society, who said of the thousands of clients his organization has served, he’d be hard-pressed to find a handful who haven’t experienced racism in B.C.’s health-care system. 

“When you can’t access health care or you’re afraid to go to your local hospital or clinic because you anticipate you’re going to be treated poorly or experience racism or discrimination, you don’t go, so that then increases or amplifies your disability or other health conditions you’re experiencing,” he told CBC’s Stephen Quinn.

WATCH | Turpel-Lafond speaks about her findings:

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond says Indigenous peoples have unequal access to primary and preventative health-care services in the province. 1:42

Overall, Indigenous people in B.C. have a higher rate of chronic conditions, worse outcomes for babies and children and have been disproportionately affected by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the overdose crisis. The death rate for Indigenous women from overdoses in 2020 was almost twice as high as that of non-Indigenous women, Turpel-Laford said.

“This data report is extremely important in its own right,” Turpel-Lafond said. “In addition to supplementing our previous reports, it serves as a stand-alone comment on health-system performance for Indigenous peoples in B.C. And it shows there is a great deal of room for improvement.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix appeared alongside Turpel-Lafond and pledged immediate action, saying he understands that those affected by racism in the health-care system are tired of reports and reviews.

“We will address systemic racism in our health-care system and rip out its deeply damaging effects,” he said.

Belanger said that while he appreciates the apology, he wants to see action taken.

“It’s now time to walk that talk and we need to be able to see some change,” he said.  

In response to Turpel-Lafond’s earlier report, Dix said he would appoint an associate deputy minister to lead a task force responsible for implementing its 24 recommendations, which include legislative, policy and structural changes focused on changing systems, behaviours and beliefs. 

On Thursday, he announced that Dawn Thomas, formerly of Island Health, would head that task force.

The province has also promised to create an office of the Indigenous health representative and advocate and improve the complaints process.

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