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Making Memorial a better place for aboriginal students

By Sharon Gray


A program of fundamental change in medical education programs and approach to Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal health is underway in the Faculty of Medicine.

An award of $187,500 over two years from the Aboriginal Health Human Resources Initiative Atlantic Region Competition will allow the Faculty of Medicine to develop a set of bridging programs, make revisions to the undergraduate medical curriculum, and reconfigure the faculty’s new master’s of public health program to ensure cultural relevance and sensitivity.

This is part of a national effort to implement Indigenous health curriculum in all 17 medical schools.

Memorial’s project will involve close collaborative development between First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities and health providers throughout Newfoundland and Labrador. Dr. Michael Jong, full-time clinical faculty member in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and Dr. Catherine Donovan, Division of Community Health and Humanities, are co-chairs of this project. Dr. Carolyn Sturge Sparkes has been hired as project co-ordinator.

Dr. Jong has worked for 26 years in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and has close ties with the Aboriginal communities of Labrador. He is in the process of broadening his connections with Aboriginal groups on the island. Dr. Donovan led the development of the master’s in public health program, and her expertise will help revise that program as well as lead in the revisions to the medical curriculum.

Dr. Sturge Sparkes has a PhD from McGill University in curriculum development and has worked with First Nations peoples in Quebec and other parts of Canada to determine ways to attract more students to pursue higher education.

At Memorial, her job will involve developing bridging programs to help the Faculty of Medicine reach out more effectively to the Aboriginal populations of the province. This includes an outreach program to increase awareness among Aboriginal high school students about the possibilities of a career in the health professions and raise their familiarity with Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine. It also includes setting aside two seats of the current 60 in the first-year medical class for Aboriginal students, and the reconfiguration of the admission criteria and the interview process in order to fill those seats. A mentorship program and tutoring facility will be introduced for successful Aboriginal applicants to ensure their success through the medical program, as well as special rotations in Aboriginal community settings to help link their medical education with their cultural background.

“The Faculty of Medicine will put in place a transition year for Aboriginals with bachelor’s degrees, designed to improve their chance of admission to medical school,” explained Dr. Sturge Sparkes. “I will also be working with others on the revision of the undergraduate medical program from a culturally sensitive position, in collaboration with community partners in the province’s Aboriginal organizations. We want a medical education curriculum that is welcoming to Aboriginal medical students and ensures that other medical students receive an education that fully addresses the health, wellness and care needs of the province’s Aboriginal populations.”

Dr. Sturge Sparkes has already made contact with Aboriginal students at Memorial to discuss their concerns and what supports they need. In January the first advisory committee meeting for the Aboriginal health initiative will be held with First Nations, Métis and Inuit representatives.

The proposed design of the new master’s of public health program will include the examination and revision of the approach and content of exiting courses that are part of the program, and culturally sensitive design of all the new courses developed. The program will also be designed to include at least one practicum opportunity in a First Nations, Inuit or Métis setting.

Dr. Donovan said that in addition to the proposed design changes for Memorial’s master’s in public health program, the Faculty of Medicine has worked with the National Consortium on Aboriginal and Rural Public Health Education to adapt one or more Memorial graduate courses for online delivery across the country and to promote enhanced access to public health education for Aboriginal students.

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