How digital technology supports the reclamation of Indigenous knowledge in healthcare

Dec 6, 2021

Body, mind, spirit and heart. These are the four dimensions of personal well-being that have long guided traditional healthcare practices of many Indigenous Peoples. 

This wisdom, among other traditional practices and Indigenous ways of knowing, has now been embedded into the foundation of a transformative Indigenous healthcare initiative, the Centre for Wise Practices’ Virtual Hub, at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.

With a $200,000 grant from TELUS Friendly Future Foundation, the virtual hub supports the construction of a healthcare system that acknowledges and respects Indigenous identity, while providing meaningful, culturally safe healthcare — where Indigenous worldviews are recognized and valued. 

Currently under development, the new virtual hub is designed to support the on-the-ground experience of Indigenous Peoples working in healthcare settings. It will also enable non-Indigenous healthcare workers access to Indigenous ways of thinking about health and ceremony, an approach that has been overlooked in Western medicine.

“To me, the virtual hub is a celebration of our strength,” says Dr. Lisa Richardson, a Toronto-based physician of Anishinaabe descent, and strategic lead for the Centre for Wise Practices in Indigenous Health at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, where the idea for the hub first took shape.  

“We know our people are still having horrible experiences in the Western healthcare system. We know that the health gap still exists, and access to care that is high-quality, responsive and free of racism is really important,” says Dr. Richardson. “It’s also important that it be Indigenous-led, Indigenous-designed, value-based and developed.”

Building a small fire 

With research indicating that racism adversely affects the health of Indigenous patients in multiple ways, the creation of the virtual hub comes amid increased demand for the development and delivery of trauma-informed, culturally safe practices, spaces, activities, and knowledge of a broader healthcare system.  

In response, Dr. Richardson, who also serves as strategic advisor for Indigenous Health in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto, began gathering and sharing relevant online resources, working alongside a dedicated team at Women’s College Hospital (pictured above).

“We wanted to ‘build this small fire’ as our Elders would say, and then we started noticing more and more people were coming to us to understand what we were doing,” she says.

Please see link to explanation of this infographic, below

This image contains text. We have provided an explanation of the infographic here.

The most recent hub development includes a COVID-19-adapted Four Directions Medicine Wheel developed in collaboration with Elders. The adapted wheel is specifically designed to offer an holistic approach to building physical, emotional, mental and spiritual resilience during COVID-19. But it also speaks to deficiencies inherent in public health measures enacted across Canada to contain the coronavirus, such as social distancing, isolation and increased hygiene practices. For these measures to be effective, people must have access to housing, clean water, food and income security. However, such basic health determinants are often inadequate in Indigenous communities. A robust Indigenous healthcare response recognizes the country’s colonial history and upholds the self-determination of Indigenous Peoples.

Recently, Ottawa-based Gabrielle Fayant, co-founder of the Assembly of Seven Generations (A7G), an Indigenous, youth-led non-profit organization, drew upon the hub’s specially adapted COVID-19 information to provide relevant and reliable information to young clients, shared through an Indigenous lens. 

“We really rely on allowing young people to make informed decisions on their own. So it’s not about me telling a young person, ‘You need to do this or that.’ It is more like, ‘Here’s all the facts and correct information, and now you can make a decision for yourself’,” says Fayant, who is originally from the Fishing Lake Métis Settlement in Alberta.

“The more information like this we have access to, the healthier our communities will be,” she says.

Dr. Daniel Passafiume echoes this sentiment.  

A non-Indigenous physician, Dr Passafiume recently completed his University of Toronto medical residency in Canada’s north, working with Indigenous communities across the Yukon. He saw firsthand inequities that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous healthcare. 

“I think understanding that these are rooted very heavily in colonialism and oppression is important and something we’re starting to get a better handle on,” he says. 

Dr. Passafiume says the resources offered through the Centre for Wise Practices go a long way to filling the information gap, and will save lives. 

“Having this resource makes a lot of ideas tangible in a way that we can use them to provide care for everybody.”

Please see link to explanation of this infographic, below

This image contains text. We have provided an explanation of the infographic here.

Sharing medicine, creating connection

Right now, the Centre for Wise Practices’ site is hosted by Women’s College Hospital. But project lead Selena Mills says the grant from TELUS Friendly Future Foundationwill bring these kinds of health-related cultural resources together in a newly built website, presented in a more interactive and engaging way, with even more content. 

“We want to make sure the new virtual hub is really interconnected in a dynamic way that is engaging for multiple demographics,” says Mills, a descendant of the Woodland Cree peoples of Lac La Ronge, Treaty 6.

 “I really believe in harnessing technology tools to uplift Indigenous brilliance.”

When the virtual hub is complete, it will also include a mobile app version to make the content even more accessible via smartphones and tablets. 

The virtual hub is one of many programs funded by TELUS Friendly Future Foundation. Every year, the foundation provides millions of dollars to more than 500 local charities across Canada, along with provincial and national organizations, that offer health or education programs, many enabled by technology. 

Click here for more information on the Centre for Wise Practices in Indigenous Health and to stay updated on the progress of the new virtual hub.