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Moving beyond Rhetoric to Action: Understanding Inequalities to Health Care Services

Rhetoric admonishing nurses and other health care professionals to address inequalities in health care is a common message; it is less often that we learn about concrete action to do just that!  In our current featured article, titled “Understanding Inequalities in Access to Health Care Services for Aboriginal People: A Call for Nursing Action” the authors describe a research initiative they undertook in partnership with Aboriginal people to create meaningful action addressing barriers that result in inequalities.  The authors, Brenda L. Cameron, PhD, RN; Maria del Pilar Carmargo Plazas, PhD, RN; Anna Santos Salas, PhD, RN; R. Lisa Bourque Bearskin, MN, RN; Krista Hungler, MSc have shared this very interesting description of their work:

Hello to Everyone on behalf of the Access Research Team and many thanks to Dr. Peggy Chinn and the Advances in Nursing Science Journal for the opportunity to accompany the article with a blog. Attached is an  Overview of the access initiative diagram and below is a photo of the authors of this article.

To begin: It was quite startling to come to the end of a two day community consultation workshop (2002) where ten areas identified as urgently needing health research were set aside. Instead a community request was issued to study access to

Krista Hungler, Sandra Kwagbenu, Maria del Pilar Camargo, Brenda Cameron, Elder Rose Martial, Raymonde Lisa Bourque Bearskin, and Anna Santos Salas. The photo is by Veronica Guerra Guerro

L to R: Krista Hungler, Sandra Kwagbenu, Maria del Pilar Camargo, Brenda Cameron, Elder Rose Martial, Raymonde Lisa Bourque Bearskin, and Anna Santos Salas. The photo is by Veronica Guerra Guerro

health care services for Indigenous and marginalized populations. Researchers from several health professions, healthcare professionals, community members with province-wide representation, and students of every level sat back and listened. This access research was not to be the current approach to access with numbers and statistics, i.e., how often Indigenous people saw specialist physicians, how many emergency visits. It was to be in collaboration with the Indigenous people and not couched only in terms of western research philosophies and methodologies.

From this request we sat down together and talked together for three years; at times coming to a consensus and moving forward, but other times, no movement at all. Sitting together at the table for this time was in a way, the research itself. It was an arduous, long process of building trust and relationships with each other with continuous clarifying of what was meant by each suggestion, what each step comprised that was decided upon, what possible fallout might occur. There were many issues on the table, some overt and some yet to appear but each one had to be thoroughly addressed before we could move on. Memoranda of Understandings had to be negotiated and signed, safety issues were addressed through the design of advisory groups and involvement of the people in each data gathering step was planned. We did not move forward without full agreement at the table. Others over this time period joined the table and again we renegotiated every step. During this time we agreed upon, designed and undertook three exploratory grants (Aboriginal populations in urban, inner city, and rural areas) in an open conversational manner with extensive advisory groups attached to each one as well as Elder scholars. The findings of these became the basis of our movement forward.

A focus on developing sensitive and comprehensive indicators for access to health care services for Indigenous people came into view early in the discussions. But we were also told by people participating in the exploratory grants that they had had enough of evaluation projects and reports. In the inner city exploratory grant, inner city residents took us to the Director’s office in one of the inner city agencies and pointed out the numerous reports that existed on the need for healthcare access appropriate to inner city and downtown core residents. They asked us: how will this study be different, there has been no action attached to these reports stemming over the last ten years. When will studies lead to action on the issues identified? Was there nursing action that had occurred in response to these reports? Will this work just enhance researcher’s careers or just prove that the healthcare system is doing something instead of nothing? These questions were the standard, the bottom line, which we were given not only from inner city residents but from all participants and healthcare professionals in our projects. We have learned that we must declare how particular research studies will benefit researchers as well as the knowledge development the studies would produce. We also had to plan how to move the findings to actions.

Moving forward: We placed Indigenous Healthcare workers called, Community Health Representatives (CHRs) in Canada, in healthcare sites with a high percentage of utilization by Indigenous people. This intervention turned out to be one of the cornerstones of our research initiative. This manuscript portrays some of this work. Our findings opened the door to understanding how even the most simple institutional mandated protocol when accompanied by overt rudeness or a stigmatizing comment, caused fright. And often there were unseen consequences down the road, i.e., never seeking care again until the condition was far advanced. Even if the institution triggered horrific memories of government residential schools (in Canada), the presence and health knowledge of an Indigenous CHR mitigated that fear. As well the CHR assisted them to communicate safely their healthcare history with few repercussions, judgments and racist practices from the institutions’ healthcare staff. Outcomes were more positive when the CHR was there. For further information see our Access Community report (2014) link below.

The call for action: The people in our studies talked about respect, feeling safe, undoing decades of harm from government and healthcare agencies, rejecting positioning statements from some past research and institutional practices, fighting for rights to have sensitive cultural and healthcare and Indigenous understandings at all points of access. Indeed our work to date shows a pressing need for joint interdisciplinary and intercultural efforts to reduce current health disparities through collaborative participatory work with Indigenous peoples.

Our findings suggest that nurses in particular the need to engage with Indigenous people and their culture to create safe access for them as often nurses are their first point of contact. All nurses know about the need to be aware of the social determinants of health and the health disparities that exist for certain populations. Nurses also know about the importance of honouring cultural traditions of health. But our research team is also aware that activating this knowledge in day to day practice needs additional careful attention and thought. As well increasingly so, the actions of nurses are prescribed by healthcare protocols and policies to ensure a specific outcome that is tied to an economic parameter. Caring for someone who is very ill takes a toll on the prescribed and allowable economic outcome for certain. Based on our studies to date in our specific healthcare institutions, our practicing nurses need support to take action to mitigate the growing and alarming reports of disingenuous care documented in our findings.

Perhaps it is again, sitting around a table with a social justice framework and consciousness raising activities to work toward incorporating research findings into actions. As health disparities climb even as we write this blog, the time to start this is now. There is much work to do to support nurses and other healthcare professionals who work under institutional dictates to then plan their care with the understanding that individuals and families with low SDOH need our special attention. We would also like to draw attention to the Indigenous social determinants of health identified by Loppie-Reading and Wein (2009) as a way to increase further understanding of implementing the SDOH in actual practices of nurses and allied healthcare professionals.

In undertaking specific action on identified issues, we honour the Indigenous peoples of Canada, our original inhabitants. In addition, we know that it will take a concentrated effort to achieve equity in access for Indigenous peoples and we challenge others to facilitate Indigenous communities to undertake their own studies.

We sincerely thank the Indigenous people and the communities that guided this investigation into access to healthcare services and know that this is just a very small step in addressing the health disparities of Indigenous peoples in these particular communities and wider systemic difficulties. We also learned that research on Indigenous topics must be led by Indigenous research scholars and the communities themselves. We very much look forward to your feedback and many thanks for the opportunity to do this blog.


Cameron, B. L., Martial, R., King, M., Santos Salas, A., Bourque Bearskin, R.L, Camargo Plazas, M.D.P., Hungler, K. (2014). Access Research Community Report: Reducing health disparities and promoting equitable access to health care services for Indigenous peoples: Community Report. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta, Faculty of Nursing.

Reading, CL, Wien, F. Health inequalities and social determinants of Aboriginal Peoples’ health. Prince George, BC: National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health. 2009.

The article is available while it is featured for free download on the ANS web site!  We – the authors and I – would be delighted to know your comments, and welcome your discussion related to these very important issues!  Please use the space below to let us hear from you!

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Lisa #

    I think this is extremely important work and wonder if this research will help to support the continuing of the CHR program in Canada.

    February 25, 2015

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