In May, the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa appointed Dr. Sarah Funnell, Founding Director of the Centre for Indigenous Health Research and Education (CIHRE). She has also been appointed an Assistant Professor at the DFM. Dr. Funnell is an Anishnaabekwe and Tuscaroran family physician and a Public Health Specialist. Since March 2020, she has directed her attention towards supporting the COVID-19 response as an Associate Medical Officer of Health at Ottawa Public Health and advancing Indigenous Health Medical Education. Previously, Dr. Funnell offered Primary Care services to Indigenous peoples, refugees, immigrants and those experiencing homelessness. This week, I had the pleasure to speak with Dr. Funnell and learn more about what led her to a career in medicine and better understand the challenges Indigenous Peoples face when accessing health care services. Though Dr. Funnell comes from a lineage of family members who practiced traditional First Nations medicine, which encompasses a holistic approach to healing, having children and a growing awareness of social justice in Canada renewed her interest in pursuing a career in medicine. Dr. Funnell followed her dual interests in family medicine and epidemiology through the five-year Public Health and Preventative Medicine Residency Program. In 2015, she received her Certification in the College of Family Physicians of Canada (CCFP) and in 2018 became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (FRCPC).
Historically, medical education focuses on the health deficits of Indigenous People, such as suicide, substance abuse, homelessness and chronic diseases. However, in the context of Indigenous health research, this view often contributes to stereotyping and further marginalization of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. Dr. Funnell stresses that the root cause of Indigenous health inequity is racism, colonialism, power and control over Indigenous people and their land. The most significant barriers Indigenous peoples face when accessing health care services are physical, technological and systemic racism. Indigenous Peoples who don’t reside in an urban area cannot get to a provider because of their geographical location. Technology has been a lifeline for many during this pandemic, but for remote Indigenous communities, there exists a digital divide. Many don’t have computers or access to reliable Internet. Thus, these communities have even more difficulty accessing healthcare. This gap in access to technology may further contribute to barrier for Indigenous Peoples. Due to systemic racism, some won’t seek care because of a traumatic experience or know a family member who has had a bad experience in the past. For some, the harm of experiencing racism can be worse than the medical condition. Dr. Funnell asserts that an in-depth understanding of social determinants outside of the healthcare system, such as the education and judicial systems, social and child protection services are essential in eradicating systemic racism.
Dr. Funnell’s vision for the CIHRE is to establish collaborative approaches across research and education with Indigenous communities and organizations in the region. The CIHRE will empower these communities to study what matters to them and rely on the rich history, traditions and ceremonies of Indigenous Peoples. According to Dr. Funnell, the medical community must do away with paternalism and appreciate Indigenous views of healing and health. Healing is not only curing the disease but embracing a patient-centred approach and having an understanding of what healing means to the patient. After being trained in modern medicine, Dr. Funnell has circled back to her roots and embraced traditional First Nations medicine. She notes that the traditional ways Indigenous Peoples lived their lives kept them healthy. Traditional ways of hunting and gathering are not only a means for sustenance, but the experience of being in nature and having an awareness of one’s surrounding in itself has a positive effect on the mind, body and spirit. For Dr. Funnell, this is why public health, family medicine and Indigenous health are intrinsic.