Health research and Indigenous peoples – Combining traditional and scientific approaches

June 18, 2015

The strength of your community, connection to your culture, and the health of your environment can all affect your health and well-being. This is particularly true for Aboriginal communities. To capture these broader measures of health, researchers and Aboriginal communities rely on new collaborative research models such as “two-eyed seeing.” Through this model, researchers see with one eye the strengths of Indigenous ways of knowing and, with the other eye, the strengths of modern scientific methods.

This approach is being used to explore ways to improve oral health – a major health priority for Indigenous communities. Among these populations, there is a high prevalence of early childhood cavities. These high rates of cavities are influenced by several factors, including socio-economic determinants, dietary habits, and oral hygiene.

At the February 2014 Pathway to Oral Health Equity for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Canadians workshop, held in Winnipeg, Manitoba, researchers and workshop organizers placed a focus on learning from Indigenous people about the oral health challenges they were facing. Dr. Robert Schroth, one of the lead researchers, noted that “We opted for a non-typical research meeting.  The idea was to foster open conversations between stakeholders to reach a better, common understanding of the current gaps and challenges in oral health care delivery.”

One of the challenges identified at the workshop was a lack of access to dental care in Indigenous and remote communities. To help support the health care needs of Indigenous peoples, the Government of Canada has put in place the Non-Insured Health Benefits program, which provides coverage for dental care. However, some remote communities simply do not have enough access to dental professionals.

“I think many Canadian dentists are keen and sensitive to the specific oral health needs of Indigenous people,” said Dr. Schroth. “And I think many are now realizing that having access to the Non-Insured Health Benefits program doesn't always translate into improved oral health status. Many other factors are at play. If you live in a remote community where professionals aren't visiting very often, NIHB isn't necessarily going to change your outcome.”

The model of knowledge-sharing used at this workshop represents a significant moral and ethical shift in the way Aboriginal research is being undertaken – from research on Aboriginal communities, to research with Aboriginal communities. “The former concept of a researcher parachuting into communities, gathering data, and leaving is no longer acceptable,” added Dr. Schroth.

Looking Forward

The research paradigm is shifting – from one in which outsiders seek solutions to Aboriginal health problems, to one in which Indigenous people are taking the lead to identify culturally grounded solutions that focus on wellness, strength, and resilience. This requires viewing health as not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, but as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.

Collaborative dialogues like this workshop are part of a growing movement to implement locally-driven programs to address health and wellness and, hopefully, find lasting solutions.

National Aboriginal Day

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