CMA president-elect Dr. Alika Lafontaine, the Alberta-based inventor of the Safespace app that allows people to report experiences of racism within B.C.’s health-care sector. (Canadian Medical Association)

CMA president-elect Dr. Alika Lafontaine, the Alberta-based inventor of the Safespace app that allows people to report experiences of racism within B.C.’s health-care sector. (Canadian Medical Association)

Alberta doctor creates ‘safe space’ for Indigenous patients to report racism in health care

Data collected from anonymous reports will help identify hotspots in the province, drive solutions for change

A new online database is offering Indigenous patients a “safe space” to anonymously report their experiences of racism in B.C.’s health-care system.

Whether their own story or their loved ones’, Safespace allows people to divulge instances of discrimination and rate facilities and practitioners on a five-point scale.

The app is hosted on the website of B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres. Executive director Leslie Varley plans to collect data signalling hotspots in the health-care system in order to drum up solutions with policymakers.

“We have seen hundreds of complaints – common examples include doctors assuming an Indigenous person is drunk or drug-seeking and turning them away,” Varley said.

She pointed to an instance in Kitimat where a pregnant Indigenous mother’s daughter was delivered a stillborn after being refused care by Kitimat General Hospital staff on Feb. 10.

Last November, an independent investigative report into B.C.’s health-care system revealed widespread racism and stereotyping. Of the nearly 9,000 Indigenous patients who participated, 84 per cent reported experiencing some form of discrimination.

“These stereotypes can and do cause us serious harm,” Varley said, emphasizing the need for a place outside the medical system to monitor complaints of anti-Indigenous racism.

“Stereotyping, discrimination and racism are not medical errors. They should not be a part of the internal medical system reporting.”

RELATED: Family claims pregnant woman was turned away at Kitimat hospital, ending in stillborn birth

Safespace was created by the president-elect of the Canadian Medical Association, Alberta-based Dr. Alika Lafontaine of Anishinaabe, Cree, Metis and Pacific Islander descent.

Lafontaine said he’s experienced the toll of racism both as a doctor and patient, but that isn’t what initially prompted him to create the app.

It was when he witnessed his brother struggle to receive care for a life-threatening condition, due to racism, that he knew something had to be done.

“People come to hospitals and doctor’s offices when at their most vulnerable and in need of help,” Lafontaine said.

“What patients are asking for the most: they want to feel like they are believed – not interrogated – about their experiences.”

He said fear of retaliation or losing access to care keeps Indigenous patients tight-lipped.

“We rarely share our trauma. I have big hopes that we can bring learning from ones reported on the app into the health-care system,” Lafontaine said.

“As a doctor, I believe if health care providers were made aware of their racism and bias many change how they operate.”

Safespace was launched in late winter and is now set to roll out nationwide to Aboriginal Friendship Centres in nearly 100 municipalities across Canada.

READ MORE: Anti-Indigenous racism embedded in B.C. healthcare system: report



sarah.grochowski@bpdigital.ca

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