Institutional bias

Latest Weweni talk addressed unintentional racism from health practitioners

Unintentional bias in healthcare can be incredibly harmful, according to Dr. Smylie.

Supplied photo

On Feb. 3, Dr. Janet Smylie addressed racial inequity in Canadian public health care during her lecture, First Peoples, Second Class Care, as part of the University of Winnipeg’s (U of W) Weweni Indigenous Scholars Speaker Series. 

“It was very clear to me that racism is one of the most important big problems,” Dr. Smylie says. “And it’s also a problem that we can do something about, ’cause it doesn’t have to be that way.” 

For 20 years, Smylie has researched the issue of health practitioners’ bias, and her lecture in Convocation Hall addressed the prevalence of racism against indigenous peoples when accessing health care in Canada and the impacts it’s had. 

“These unintentional, maybe we should say unconscious, implicit racist assumptions, are the most common and most harmful, life threatening in the health service setting,” she states. 

Smylie and her colleagues are testing tools that could help assess the unintentional bias of health care practitioners, such as an indigenous-based implicit association test, a social psychology test that measures attitudes or preferences that people may be unwilling or unable to admit. 

“People’s lives are too complicated, so we have to actually turn off this stereotyping section of our brain and actually challenge it when we’re trying to address our race preference biases,” she says. 

Dr. Annette Trimbee, president and vice-chancellor at the U of W, says it is important to look into these topics. 

“One of the things we’re very proud of is our students asked us to mandate some indigenous content,” she says. 

“We’re an educational institution and we’re going to look for opportunities to encourage our faculty, our students, our staff, as well as our larger community (to) have access to some of the history that we all need to know to better understand why we have these unconscious biases.” 

As a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario, with Métis roots in Saskatchewan, Smylie is one of the first Métis doctors in Canada. She has extensive experience in medicine and has practiced and taught family medicine in a variety of aboriginal communities. She’s also worked as an associate professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto. 

She now works as a research scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital, Centre for Research on Inner City Health (CRICH) in downtown Toronto and also maintains a part-time clinical practice at Seventh Generation Midwives Toronto. 

She also had a responsibility to be an expert witness in a second part of the inquest into the death of Mr. Brian Sinclair, who died of a treatable bladder infection while waiting for care in the emergency room at Winnipeg’s Health Science Centre. 

“That’s part of what has motivated this whole area of work for me.” 

Smylie also holds a New Investigator Award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. In 2012, she was named a recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, which recognizes First Nations, Inuit and Métis individuals across the country. 

Other areas of work she’s passionate about include supporting better documentation in indigenous health assessments and looking at effective strategies of improving and supporting infant child and family health in indigenous communities. 

The Weweni Indigenous Scholars Speaker Series presents distinguished indigenous scholars and celebrates the success of U of W students throughout academic year.

Published in Volume 70, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 11, 2016)

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