UBC Faculty of Medicine Aboriginal Admissions Program Celebrating 15 Successful Years

UBC Faculty of Medicine’s Aboriginal Admissions Program 2017 graduates. Alex Sheppard, back row center, James Andrews, right of center back row. Photo credit: Kevin Ward

The University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Medicine Aboriginal Admissions program is on track to graduate over 100 med students by 2020 says, James Andrews, University of British Columbia (UBC), Aboriginal Student Initiatives Coordinator. “This year is our 15 year anniversary for the program, and as of May 2017, with seven new med students graduating, we have reached 71 Aboriginal graduates,” Andrews said.

Interest in the program has grown since it began in 2002, the year they received seven applicants, of which two were admitted. Designed to increase the number of Aboriginal medical students and physicians in British Columbia, the program now averages 20 to 25 applicants per year.

Academic success of Aboriginal students is contingent upon early educational engagement. Programs such as the pre-admissions workshop (conducted by the Division of Aboriginal People’s Health) introduce science and medical career role-models to young Aboriginal students where academic success is fostered by early engagement and recruitment. Aboriginal MD students also serve as mentors to applicants in the pre-admissions stage and forge strong relationships and a system of peer support.

Andrews explained many individuals praise the Aboriginal medical program and hope it continues to thrive. “My response is, we still have decades to go and we need at least 300 Aboriginal physicians in B.C. in order to make an impact on our Aboriginal people’s health; we aren’t even a quarter of the way there yet. In Canada we need 3,000 Aboriginal physicians, but the best guestimate is 300 and our work isn’t close to being done,” said Andrews.

About 60 per cent of the program’s Aboriginal graduates have trained and are training to become family doctors, while the remaining graduates are in surgical specialties and other specialties like psychiatry. Aboriginal med graduates are choosing to practice medicine in the community, such as one graduate who is now a family doctor with a practice in Vancouver’s Lumar Housing complex.

As graduates help meet the need of more family doctors in B.C. and throughout Canada, the program continues to improve its curriculum in Aboriginal health. Alex Sheppard, Cree and Metis from Alberta, and one of the seven graduates this year, said she would definitely recommend the UBC Aboriginal Medical program to Aboriginal students interested in pursuing a career in medicine.

“I think they are a leader in Canada for Aboriginal medical education with a separate Aboriginal admissions process and support for Aboriginal students during our four years of training,” Sheppard said. “All of the Aboriginal medical students also had the opportunity to take part in an Aboriginal orientation week before first year started, where we all got to know each other and take part in a number of cultural activities. We also had yearly Aboriginal retreats that allowed us to stay connected to one another and to our heritage.”

Sheppard plans to move to Newfoundland for two years for a residency in family medicine. She is in a program called NunaFam, which involves spending six months of second year training in Iqaluit. “I’m really looking forward to being immersed in rural generalist medicine and to further cultivate my interest in Aboriginal Health,” said Sheppard.

Sheppard said there are a number of health disparities facing Aboriginal communities across Canada today and she thinks, in general, there is a lot of room for improvement in how they deliver healthcare to the unique Aboriginal populations. “As a general practitioner, I hope to be able to work in these communities and have some opportunity to make changes on a systemic level,” said Sheppard.

During her time in medicine, Sheppard said she has been lucky enough to meet amazing Aboriginal residents and doctors who’ve taught her a great deal and inspire her every day. “I know what I have learned from them will inform my practice for many years to come,” said Sheppard.

I asked the UBC Aboriginal Student Initiatives Coordinator what students interested in gaining admittance into the Aboriginal Medical Program need to do to qualify. “Because the Undergraduate MD program is a professional degree, we require students to excel in their academic and non-academic endeavors,” Andrews said. “Academically, they should have strong marks, grades, and a relatively good MCAT score (Medical College Admissions Test). Non-academically, students should have demonstrated they can work with people through their volunteer and or work experiences.”