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College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba apologizes for racism in healthcare

The organization that regulates medical care and services in Manitoba apologizes for racism against Indigenous Peoples in accessing health care in the province.

“The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba recognizes its failure to effectively regulate the medical profession to prevent racist and substandard medical care for Indigenous Peoples,” reads the organization’s statement and apology on Truth and Reconciliation and Indigenous Racism in medical practice.

The Manitoba First Nation leadership was presented with the apology Tuesday during the annual General Meeting of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC).

“I was shocked and I was surprised,” AMC Grand Chief Cathy Merrick said Wednesday.

Merrick said the apology is welcome, if not fully accepted, given the abuses Manitoba’s Indigenous people are being subjected to by the healthcare system.

“I don’t think we’re there at this point,” Merrick said.

“I think we need to be able to work together and educate people.”

Much of this education will begin by dismantling racist assumptions about Indigenous patients.

Chief Sheldon Kent, chair of the Manitoba First Nations Health and Welfare Secretariat, said racism is something that members of the Manitoba First Nations may experience as soon as they enter a hospital or clinic. He added that this often leads to people assuming that Indigenous patients have alcohol or substance-related problems and not being shown compassion during the admissions process.

“Any person entering a facility should be greeted with, ‘How can I help you?'” Kent said. “Make them feel welcome and ask, ‘What’s the problem?’ It is a basic human rights service.”

In its joint apology and statement, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba (CPSM) cites historic instances of health system abuse of First Nations people, such as separate hospitals or unethical feeding experiments on Indigenous children.

Current examples of Indigenous racism, such as failure to recognize the benefits of integrating Indigenous health practices with Western practices and outright derogatory comments, are also included in the statement, along with next steps, including a standard of practice to prevent Indigenous racism.

Doctors who do not comply with the new rules of conduct will be warned.

“There are always those who don’t like a carrot and need a whip,” says Dr. Anna Ziomek, Chancellor at the College. “We will have a standard that will show these things and you will be subject to a disciplinary process.”

Ziomek added that education will play a central role in the CPSM’s ongoing efforts to reduce systemic racism in Manitoba’s healthcare system.

Racism in Manitoba’s health care system has very real consequences for the province’s Indigenous people.

First Nations people in Manitoba are more likely to die prematurely than the average Manitoba, according to a 2019 study. On average, the life expectancy for a First Nation man or woman in Manitoba is 11 years shorter than the average Manitoban.

This is despite the fact that First Nations people spend more than double the time in hospitals compared to most Manitobans.

“I have no doubt that many of the poorer health outcomes are indirectly and possibly even directly related to racism,” said Dr. Alan Katz, lead author of the study.

Katz said this can manifest in a number of ways. For example, he said that there are certain clinics and emergency rooms in Manitoba that First Nations people will not go to for abuse, which can delay medical care.

There are also differences in procedures, Katz added, like not doing certain tests when an Indigenous person has a heart attack.

“It ranges from differences in examining symptoms to differences in treatment to differences in accessing care based on respect and dignity,” he said.

Longer waits for an angiogram, inadequate pain control, and late referrals to a diabetes specialist are other ways racism can manifest itself in Manitoba’s health care system, said Dr. Marcia Anderson, Vice Dean for Indigenous Health, Social Justice and Anti-Racism at the University of Manitoba’s Rady Faculty of Health Sciences.

“Because of negative past experiences, people shun the health care system when they need medical care, which can lead to delayed diagnoses under certain conditions,” Anderson said. “So there is a significant impact of racism on healthcare.”

Medical professionals can experience racism too, Anderson added.

“If we think about the current health workforce crisis, there are many reasons to address racism in the health system,” Anderson said, alluding to Manitoba’s shortage of health workers.

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