Friday, February 02, 2007

"Aboriginals and Preferential Treatment in the Med School Admissions Process"

This is a response that I posted to a forum post entitled "Aboriginals and Preferential Treatment in the Med School Admissions Process," which can be found here.

This issue is one that just five or six months ago, I wouldn't have had a single idea about. In fact, back when I was naïve to the condition and many aspects of the history of Aboriginal peoples, I wondered a lot of the same things that were posted in the initial post. I was raised in a religiously sheltered home and had never had the chance to get to know personally people in the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transvestite community, people of other racial descent, or people of other religious beliefs, Aboriginals included.

Now that I am in a medical school class I have been blessed to get to know some people of Aboriginal descent. I have only begun to address some of the misconceptions I had.

Everyone has a basic understanding about the "we're on their land" concept. However, poor treatment of Aboriginals has occurred more recently than you might think. Lack of the most basic human needs (ie. clean water) on Canadian reserves has happened only a few months ago, with the Canadian government directly to blame. But most people know about that too. One of these things that I had no idea about just a few months ago concerns the residential school system. In the last few months I have been horrifed to learn about this despicable part of Canadian history. A description can be found at CBC Archives or on Wikipedia. I have heard stories of Aboriginal students abused in every way, from being forced to use only the English language, to being forced to sleep in human excrement under outhouses. I began to realize that for these horrors, any amount of money in the world wouldn't fix or help having to grow up with parents or grandparents who suffered through this and are still emotionally scarred by it. Then I found out that people I know were old enough to have gone to these schools. The last one closed in 1996, during your lifetime. I didn't realize that 'benefits' for Aboriginal people weren't just for things that happened hundreds of years ago.

Another misconception I had was about the medical school admissions standards for Aboriginal applicants. I've been in your position, so you might be surprised - as I was - to hear that Aboriginal applicants don't 'have it made' as much as I thought they did. Yes, while some medical schools have different requirements or admissions subcommittees for Aboriginals, still a huge percentage of declared Aboriginal applicants are turned away each year. I can't find the exact numbers, but unlike how I first thought it was, being of Aboriginal descent isn't a 'free pass' into medicine. Therefore, I believe that anyone who thinks that Aboriginal students might use their 'status' to 'abuse the system' or 'skip the queue' needs to realize that this isn't easy to do. Aboriginal applicants will be interviewed on ethics and integrity just like every other medical applicant there is, and don't try to tell me that there are no other medical applicants who have ruined other peoples thesis experiments, misconstrued themselves, or told a lie just to get into medicine. Admissions offices have filters for these bad seeds, and they come from every background.

One of my most memorable classes to date was held in an Aboriginal longhouse. We had an Aboriginal physician and speakers from the Aboriginal community talk to us about Aboriginal health issues. We learned some basic things like the medicine wheel, which relates to the four directions of life (more on that at
here). Good health, according to Aboriginal tradition, can be achieved by finding balance between the four areas. Knowing things like this, they told us, will help us relate to our Aboriginal patients even better in the future.

I felt honoured a few weeks later when my Aboriginal friend's father was telling me about a man of whom he thought very highly. "He's very balanced," he told me. I knew exactly where he was coming from. I couldn't help but smile and realize that I had finally learned something of real meaning in my medical school class.
You're not the only person who doesn't understand these things fully. I didn't. I still don't. One of my Aboriginal friends has even told me that she has had people ask her to her face, "Why do you people get it so good? Why don't you have to pay taxes, etc." and the pain that a misinformed question like this causes is horrible, and could be avoided if we simply overcame our misunderstandings. I still have a long way to go, and am hoping that I didn't say something ignorant or offensive even in this post. But give me credit for trying to increase my awareness, and while you may have offended some people in the way you phrased your comments, I hope you're going down that path as well.


Anonymous said...

It's important to remember that what medschool is ultimately about is making sure that patients receive the best possible medical treatment. And I think most people would agree that simply using one's premed grades as a barometer of that would be utter nonsense. Of course academic ability is important, but there are a great many other factors that are important as well, and the fact that a particular social grouping's grades happens to be lower than the social average might still qualify them equally as well to best serve patients, so long as they have other qualities which compensate for such. Like you said Vitum, being Aboriginal is not a free pass, but having a lower minimum cutoff allows interviewers to explore the possibility that applicants might have non-standard qualifications.

Anonymous said...

Just discovered your blog via Couz's. It's going in my favourites.

It's good to see someone else voicing this opinion.
I also think that aboriginals will be more likely to work in rural and remote areas where they have no doctors, or haven't been able to recruit a sufficient number. They'll be able to build more trust between patients who are aboriginal, and will be better aware of the specific issues and root causes of certain problems more than white or city-born doctors. It's interesting how generally with affirmative-action type programs, people will automatically assume that for a minority to get into a program, the admission level must have been lowered. (Granted in this case it was, but that's only part of the selection process. As I mentioned above, some aboriginal applicants could be much better at other things than some white applicants with a higher GPA). The common misconception is that these programs result in more-qualified applicants being passed up in favour of minorities. But people don't come pre-labelled as "more-qualified" and "less-qualified", they are judged that way by a human being capable of error, capable of racial/gender bias in a very subconscious way. I think the above typical reaction to affirmative action programs perfectly demonstrates how much we need programs like this to enable us to eventually get past those subconscious assumptions.