Toward better outcomes for aboriginal cancer patients

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Toward better outcomes for aboriginal cancer patients

Toronto, April 21, 2015

By Emily Holton

Peter Gilgan Patient Care Tower
Joanna Vautour, St. Michael’s new aboriginal patient navigator for cancer services, in the Multifaith Meditation Room. (Photo by Yuri Markarov, Medical Media Centre)

A cancer diagnosis often comes with a litany of new information. Health professionals and patients must quickly discuss treatment plans, survival rates and how to manage medications and symptoms. Joanna Vautour, an aboriginal patient navigator in cancer services, approaches things in a different way.

“When I meet with a new client, we often start by talking about where they’re from,” said Vautour. “We connect about language, the land, how our ancestors have lived their lives. This is the right place to start from an aboriginal perspective. It’s how we learn about each other and build trust.”

Compared to non-aboriginal Ontarians, aboriginal people in Ontario face striking, persistent health inequities and challenges accessing health care. Cancer incidence and mortality rates are higher among aboriginal people and cancer tends to be diagnosed at a later stage.

Employed by Cancer Care Ontario’s Toronto Central Regional Cancer Program and based at St. Michael’s, Vautour is one of 10 aboriginal patient navigators across Ontario. The roles were created to help improve cancer outcomes for people in Ontario’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, and help aboriginal cancer patients negotiate a large and complex health care system that doesn’t always align with aboriginal ways of knowing and doing. Each navigator serves all hospitals in his or her region.

Vautour’s hope is that she can help build more cultural competency into the system and bridge the divide between non-aboriginal health-care providers and aboriginal patients.

  “Traditional teachings on things like bravery can help guide us and how we take care of ourselves.”
- Joanna Vautour

“It starts with building that trust,” said Vautour. “Over time I’m seeing patients be more open to their relationships at the hospital, and more of a collaboration between aboriginal patients and their providers. It’s exciting.”

Vautour’s background is in social work and mental health. Her family is from Serpent River First Nation, an Anishinaabe First Nation in Northern Ontario.

Most of Vautour’s referrals come from within St. Michael’s, but her connections are growing with other hospitals in the region. She offers a range of supports to patients, from answering questions about navigating the cancer system and talking through emotions, to help with organizing appointments and arranging transportation to the hospital. Vautour often meets her clients at the hospital entrance to help them find their way.

“Our traditions are a foundation and a core for me,” said Vautour. “But I must always remember that not all aboriginal people share the same belief system. Whatever beliefs our patients have, wherever they’re coming from, we start from there.”

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.

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