Indigenous-patient navigator hired at Saanich Peninsula Hospital after racism complaints

Island Health has hired a “navigator” for Indigenous patients seeking emergency services at Saanich Peninsula Hospital, after complaints of racism at the hospital last year resulted in a report about widespread prejudice in the health-care system.

Lucia Bartleman, a member of the Tsartlip First Nation, started at Saanich Peninsula last month as the first Indigenous-patient navigator in Island Health. Bartleman, whose ancestral name is Stqwal and who is a mother of seven and grandmother to 22, worked for about two decades as health manager with the Pauquachin First Nation in North Saanich. In 2016, she was awarded the First Nations Health Directors Association Inspiration Award for providing health services to the Indigenous community.

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The new role is funded by Island Health through the provincial government. Patient navigators greet patients, explain processes and accompany them through the hospital. Bartleman will be joined by four other Indigenous-patient navigators in Island Health. The Interior and Vancouver Coastal Health authorities both employ Indigenous-patient navigators.

Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a retired judge, was asked in June 2020 to investigate allegations that health-care professionals at Saanich Peninsula Hospital played a game where they guessed Indigenous patients’ blood alcohol levels. The investigation found no evidence to substantiate the allegations. Turpel-Lafond said she heard anecdotal reports, but “none could be described as prevalent, widespread or targeting only Indigenous patients.”

Instead, the report, called In Plain Sight: Addressing Indigenous-specific Racism and Discrimination in B.C. Health Care, found hundreds of examples of racism and profiling resulting in poorer health outcomes for First Nations and Métis people.

Turpel-Lafond said the result has been “lasting mistrust and fear of the health-care system” among Indigenous people. Her report provided 24 recommendations aimed at eliminating Indigenous-specific racism and creating equity in health-care experiences, services and outcomes.

The Indigenous-patient navigator role was developed by Island Health, Saanich Peninsula Hospital and WSÁNEĆ communities — a partnership required to build trust and address racism within the health-care system, said Tsartlip First Nation Chief Don Tom. He said knowing there is someone at the hospital to advocate on behalf of Indigenous people “gives me hope that we can change our systems.”

Kathy MacNeil, Island Health president and CEO, acknowledged the system has been unsafe for Indigenous patients and said the health authority is committed to delivering compassionate care.

Hospital leadership teams have completed Indigenous cultural safety training, met with local First Nations leadership to hear their concerns, and created plans to improve cultural understanding and approaches.

Dr. Brendan Irvine, Island Health medical director for Saanich Peninsula and Gulf Islands, said the patient navigator role is overdue.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix called the partnership with Island Health and WSÁNEĆ First Nations communities an important step in a journey of healing, reconciliation and trust in the health system. “I am proud to see this position in place at Saanich Peninsula emergency department, [which joins] other health authorities in adding Indigenous-patient navigators to improve the health-care experience,” Dix said in a statement.

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