Several years ago, ICN and other patient-partnered organizations initiated the iKnow Health project to help people in Alberta understand how healthcare works, how to navigate and advocate for themselves, and how to apply their rights. While that project was designed to reach a wide population with its online guide Healthcare Basics for Albertans, we knew there were significant additional challenges for rural and minority/marginalized communities. To better understand these challenges, we partnered with the Alberta International Medical Graduates Association (AIMGA) to support volunteer Connectors to host seven conversations about healthcare in newcomer communities in Alberta.
In our pilot Connect project, ICN trained and supported volunteer Connectors, all international medical graduates with AIMGA, with goals of:
– uncovering community knowledge, strengths, and needs;
– identifying ways of working with and supporting communities;
– building health and digital health literacy, navigation and advocacy skills; and
– compiling and sharing learnings with ICN and a network of other organizations in Alberta.
“What made this project unique and valuable was that space was handed over to the participants. We didn’t design the conversations to be about any specific topic or to teach something in particular. It was just facilitated space about healthcare that people could use as they needed,” says Elena Tumasz-Jordan, ICN’s Connect Program Manager. As it turned out, all the conversations (which were mostly with women) focused on women’s health and/or mental health.
Over the summer, 18 Connectors hosted conversations with about 98 participants who used the conversation space to bring up concerns and needs. Representation among healthcare providers was the most common concern: participants expressed a need for providers who shared the same experiences and cultural lenses, especially in OB/GYN, family practice, and mental healthcare specialties. Participants also expressed concern about access to care being dependent on employment and immigration status. Participants described a lack of information about health and healthcare resulting in stigma and uncertainty.
All Connectors indicated that the project benefited them through skill-building, community connection, and learning.
One Connector, Obi (whose full name is Obianuju Unaigwe) said, “It affected me personally by making me aware of how powerful having a non-judgmental platform is. It stimulates conversations, even the hard topics. It was a reminder that I should always revert back to the reason why I became a doctor and a future mental health specialist.”
“I got involved with the Connect program because I saw it as an important means of bringing people with similar concerns together to discuss their experiences and hear them explain in their own words, what they need in order to address those concerns. Also, it builds a sense of community especially for people who have felt alienated in one way or the other,” says Obi.
Connectors said that participants benefited from the conversation by having an open, safe space to discuss their experiences with healthcare. Connect conversations provided companionship, validation, emotional release, community support, and resources/tips/tricks for system navigation. Many Connectors said that their participants followed up with them to ask about more conversations in the future.
For us at Imagine, we want to understand what issues are important to Albertans. We are also looking for ways to build the capacity of individual citizens to become active partners in their healthcare journeys, and potentially to work within their communities to improve health experiences.
Now that we’ve concluded the pilot we will be reviewing our learnings and exploring future directions and partnerships that could see us expand our program into other communities, perhaps rural or with seniors.