Waterloo alum integrated healthcare models to meet the needs of Indigenous Peoples

Friday, November 8, 2019

Much of the health-care system in Canada is built on a medical model that addresses health deficits and treats symptoms of disease. Traditionally, Indigenous peoples have taken a more holistic view of health that includes spiritual health and cultural wellness, which can lead to a challenge when Western systems try to treat them.

For Applied Health Sciences alumnus Cornelia (Nel) Wieman (MSc Kinesiology ’91), there is no question that these approaches result in Indigenous peoples being poorly served, and discriminated against, within the health-care system – whether in the delay or withholding of treatment from First Nations and Indigenous patients, or the reluctance of Indigenous peoples to access a system with racist and discriminatory practices.

Cornelia (Nel) WiemanA desire to transform the health-care system to be more culturally safe for Indigenous peoples has been a focus of Wieman’s career as Canada’s first female Indigenous psychiatrist.

But first, Wieman needed to get to a place where she could see herself as part of the solution for bringing these two medical models together. She credits experiences at Waterloo for expanding her imagination: “If you can’t see yourself in a role, you will never achieve it.” Before she came to UWaterloo, she says, “As an Indigenous person and a Sixties Scoop survivor, and as part of systemic discrimination, I wasn’t particularly encouraged to achieve.” But at university, she began to realize that she was smart and capable, and a co-op term showed her that going to medical school was an option for her.

While she originally thought that she would pursue neurosurgery or neurology, exposure to the Indigenous medical community further opened her eyes to where she could be most useful. “Very pragmatically, I came to see that an Indigenous neurosurgeon was not as needed as an Indigenous doctor who worked in mental health and wellness.”

Psychiatry, she realized, was one of the only specialties that brought together the science of Western medicine with the art of intuition, storytelling and relationships. After graduating, she worked first in a rural First Nations community, then with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital, before moving to her current role as the senior medical officer for mental health and wellness for the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) of British Columbia.

It is in this latest role that Wieman finds particular hope about integrating an Indigenous model of health into the Canadian health-care system. “We are attempting to transform the system,” she says. “The health of First Nations people will only improve if they have better access to, utilization of and benefit from the health-care system.” [...]

Read the full story written by Susan Fish for the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences publication, News to You.

A survivor of the Sixties Scoop, Nel Wieman describes how she went on to become Canada's first female Indigenous psychiatrist in this recent True Callings feature produced during her time at CAMH.

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