The UBC MD Undergraduate Program will have not only its largest graduating class in history but also a landmark year for the faculty’s Aboriginal MD Admissions Program. The vision was to have at least 50 graduates from the Aboriginal MD Admissions Program by 2020. This year, the program has exceeded its vision five years ahead of schedule, with 54 Aboriginal students graduating.
“In the past 14 years, the highlights have been witnessing students graduate and creating new opportunities for themselves in the medical field,” says James Andrews, Aboriginal Student Initiatives Coordinator. “In the first year, we had two students who successfully met the recruitment requirements for the MD Admissions Program. Skeptics and critics said that was too low. I told them, ‘Give us some time; we’re a new program.’” Andrews says the number of students graduating in the Aboriginal MD Admissions Program is up 50%. “My main role is to support students in any way I can help, and see they pass their prerequisites, class attendance, their personal lives are dealt with, and that their studies are the main priority.”
The UBC Aboriginal MD Admissions Program has become an example for other faculties of medicine in Canada and enrolment is at its peak, with 35 Aboriginal students. Andrews also attends workshops and travels to different communities, high schools, and postsecondary institutions in BC as an advocate for the Aboriginal MD Admissions Program. “This is a unique program that works well towards the success of the students,” says Andrews. “We want to share this milestone with all post-secondary across the country.”
This year’s graduates include Kelsey Louie, Roisin Dooley, Lee-Anne Huisman, Casandra Felske, and Ryan Leblanc. Roisin Dooley, from the St. Theresa Point First Nation in Manitoba, says interactions with patients was by far her favourite part of the four year program. Dooley plans to attend Western University, where she’ll complete a five-year residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology. First Nations Drum asked her about the importance of having Aboriginal physicians. “Aboriginal communities have largely had their health services come from government providers for many years. However, the history between Aboriginal communities and the government has been far from ideal, with Aboriginal people in places of marginalization with assimilative policies,” Dooley says. “There have been improvements made in this relationship, but there is still a lot of work to be done, and the health care system is one place in which I hope I can help further this. I think it’s important for Aboriginal communities because they can visually see someone who comes from a background similar to theirs in some dynamic and know that they’re culturally safe in a healthcare setting, where historically that has not been the case. I know that allies are also very important in the healthcare field, and great advocates are as well, but it does become an added dimension when you can actually speak to experience with a patient about your Aboriginal community, culture, and background. When this connection is made with patients, it can help with alleviating apprehension of medical procedures or addressing other concerns, as well as having them tell their family and friends to be conscious of their health.”
Dooley also talked about the main concerns facing First Nation communities in Canada. “In my own words, I can only speak to what I have experienced myself as a patient, family member of patients, and as a medical student. I would say that accessibility to adequate health care is a main health concern, especially with remote First Nations communities that are often only provided with medical services from a few regular nurses and visiting medical doctors and other healthcare professionals. A corresponding health care issue to that is food security, because there are many health issues that can arise if you are without a diet that provides necessary nutrients and vitamins.”
Dooley added that mental health is another area of concern in First Nations communities. “There have been many historical traumas experienced by First Nations, which have lasting effects not only on survivors but the children and grandchildren as inter-generational effects that impact mental well-being. Many of the underlying issues for negative coping mechanisms and self-harm are often related to mental health issues, such as narcotic use and suicides. Providing regular services, relating to accessibility, will help ensure improvements in the future.”
Kelsey Louie, of the Sliammon First Nation along the West Coast of BC is graduating from the Island Medical Program out of Victoria, an expansion of the UBC MD Undergraduate program. Louie says that other than all the challenges he faced during the four years at UBC, the big plus was the one-on-one time he shared learning with the professors. “There were 32 students in our program, and not competing for student time with the profs was a huge bonus for the quality of learning.”
Louie, age 33, says says his reason for choosing a career in medicine stems from a personal interest in the human body and supporting the well-being of others, combined with previous healthcare work experiences in Aboriginal communities. “Recognizing the health challenges and disparities faced by our people, in addition to the need for culturally sensitive care, I believed I could help play a significant role in the health and well being of our people by becoming a family physician,” he says.
UBC alumnus Dr. Nolan Hop Wo, a Metis who graduated from the UBC medical program in 2012, says his four years at UBC was a struggle, but one highlight was meeting his future wife (also a fellow medical student). Nolan is currently engaged in research investigating the mental health of Indigenous students attending post-secondary schools within Canada. He is also Resident Director of the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada.
Nolan offers this advice to prospective and current students in the UBC medical program: “Medicine is an exciting, challenging, and rewarding career. Becoming an Aboriginal physician, or any other health provider, puts you in a position to be able to improve the health of our Peoples. Being Aboriginal, you have a unique perspective on what health means to us, as well as how our past (i.e. residential schools) influences all aspects of our health. Becoming a physician affords us the opportunity to start to decolonize and improve our health care system from within.”