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Recovery and reconciliation

A $108,000 research award will help PhD student Charlene Thompson to challenge health inequities in Indigenous communities from a new perspective.

Talking to Thompson, her desire to address the continuing imbalance is clear.

 “I have a great fondness and appreciation of Indigenous cultures, and the health inequities people continue to face are not fair. I see my research as an opportunity to be part of the reconciliation process, and serve these communities in a way that is meaningful to them.”

A student in the School of Public Health (SPH), Thompson was awarded the three-year Aboriginal Research Methodologies grant by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which will support her ground-breaking project to develop a model for improved delivery of health programs in Indigenous communities that, for the first time, incorporates feedback from the communities’ frontline health workers.

“Little previous research has engaged frontline health workers directly, and their input is essential to truly understand what needs to change,” she said.

Working collaboratively with Elders, leaders and community members within two Indigenous communities, Thompson hopes to speak with health professionals such as nurses and community health workers to gain perspectives on what they need to successfully deliver better healthcare programs.

Thompson explained that developing a model based on frontline workers’ priorities will help pinpoint the community’s specific needs and target improvements to healthcare programming in the right places, leading to a healthier population.

The ultimate aim is to take positive steps towards closing the gap in health inequities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

Given the uniqueness of each community, Thompson says there is no universal solution, but she hopes her project will yield a useful starting point for other communities.

Stepping back from a career in nursing, Thompson admits that the decision to pursue her PhD was not an easy one.

A practicum placement with the First Nations Lung Health Project during her Master of Public Health degree inspired her to continue her education in Indigenous health, and opened her eyes to the benefit of community-based research.

“I saw a fresh perspective of research, a collaborative approach that allows communities to drive their own action based on their needs,” she said.

A big part of this, Thompson explained, is for researchers to respect the individual traditions and values of an Indigenous community, and to enter into it with an open mind, prepared to listen.

“It should be up to the community how its research findings are communicated,” she explained. “As academics, we need to work harder to find a way of bridging our work with Indigenous traditions, so that we avoid any dominance from colonial systems.”

Thompson’s next step is to find the Indigenous communities she will work with.

“My goal is to connect with communities who are open to trying this project out to see if we can make a positive impact,” she said. “I would also like to build long-term working relationships, so I can continue to be of service to the community after the project has finished.”

With the finances in place to back her research, Thompson is equally grateful for the strong support she has received from her supervisor, SPH faculty member Michael Szafron, and her PhD advisory committee.

“I am fortunate to have experts around me who understand what I am trying to achieve,” she said. “I think that is key to successful research work.” 

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