Developing culturally appropriate health solutions: Indigenous Health Partners Program

Mar 10, 2021

The Department of Family and Community Medicine (DFCM) has made a commitment to developing strong leadership and programming in the areas of social accountability, Indigenous health and equity, diversity and inclusion. As part of this effort, Dr. Suzanne Shoush, Indigenous Health Faculty Lead, is working to develop and implement an integrated and accountable plan for the department to respond to the needs of Indigenous communities it serves.

To expand our work in this area, DFCM is pleased to welcome the Indigenous Health Partners Program (IHPP) into the Global Health and Social Accountability portfolio.

IHPP is an innovative program that develops culturally appropriate health care solutions in some of Canada’s most remote and underserved Indigenous communities. Developed in 2014 by Dignitas International, a Canadian nongovernmental organization, IHPP was created to address the unique health needs of rural and remote Indigenous communities.

The IHPP team works with Indigenous leaders and health professionals in their own communities to identify health care challenges. Using local knowledge, they work together to develop and study potential solutions.

“In many northern communities, doctors and nurses are not able to stay long-term and there are long periods where people in these communities are not being fully cared for,” says IHPP’s Academic Lead and DFCM faculty member, Dr. Sumeet Sodhi. “One of the best resources we have in these communities are Community Health Workers, who are often people who live in the community, who speak the language and understand the culture and the issues a community faces.”

By training Community Health Workers in specific types of health care delivery, including health promotion, screening, diagnosis and treatment, IHPP and its partners are helping to bridge the gap in care in ways that incorporate local knowledge and practices and provides training to a community-based workforce.

The Community Health Worker Diabetes Program is a great example of these partnerships. Across Canada, rates of type 2 diabetes are 2.5 to 4 times higher among First Nations people compared to the general population. To address this, IHPP is working with the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority (SLFNHA) in 13 communities to train and mentor Community Health Workers in diabetes management using customized and culturally appropriate training tools and job aids.

"Our collaborative program has demonstrated that CHWs significantly benefit from community-based diabetes prevention efforts and close the pronounced gap between clinic and community that has historically been a barrier to diabetes management and culturally appropriate healthcare," says Janet Gordon, SLFNHA’s Chief Operating Officer.

Building on this program, IHPP and SLFNHA have developed a Regional Diabetes Strategy for the Sioux Lookout Area by engaging First Nations community leaders and service providers. IHPP and SLFNHA are also developing a Community Wellness through Traditional Healing program, an integrated mental wellness program rooted in Anishinabe ways that includes traditional specialists and encourages the use of Anishinabe traditions, language and ways of knowing.

"We believe that the knowledge and experience gained throughout our work will aid efforts to improve diabetes treatment support, self-management, healthy lifestyles and mental wellness at the community level," states Gordon.

Other IHPP initiatives include the development a family-focused Substance Use Disorder Treatment Model with a First Nations community on Lake Huron, who identified substance use as a priority issue in their community. IHPP is also collaborating with a Canadian NGO and Inuit communities in Nunavut to improve tuberculosis (TB) outcomes through community empowerment and the utilization of CHW’s in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of TB.

With IHPP activities gaining momentum and making tangible headway, the news that Dignitas International was winding down was a blow to the program and the communities it partners with. In order to continue this valuable work, Dr. Sodhi and program lead Katie Johnson began looking for a new home for the program.

Together, IHPP, Dignitas International and DFCM leadership felt that the Global Health and Social Accountability program at DFCM was a natural home.

“This program is so innovative and the way they engage communities and conduct participatory research is incredibly impressive,” says Dr. Katherine Rouleau, Vice-Chair of Global Health and Social Accountability at DFCM. “We are incredibly fortunate to have them part of our house and part of our research family.”

“Dr. Sodhi and Katie Johnson have really done a great job of building this program and finding donors,” says Dr. Rouleau. “We will continue to support them and hopefully find ways to expand these programs even further.”

In the coming year, IHPP and the Global Health and Social Accountability Program will be examining how to enhance and expand current projects and seek out partners for potential new initiatives, while exploring opportunities to help address the impact of COVID-19 on the Indigenous communities they are working with.

For more information on IHPP initiatives please contact dfcm.ihpp@utoronto.ca.