Health Council report says Inuit elders suffer from poor health care

Language barriers, constant travel, contribute to the problem


A report released by the Health Council of Canada finds that elderly Inuit receive dramatically lower quality health care than their non-Aboriginal peers in southern Canada.

“Little attention has been paid to the health care needs of Aboriginal seniors in either research or public policy, and this has created some growing concerns,” said the report, released Nov. 28.

Entitled Canada’s most vulnerable, the report finds Aboriginal seniors including Inuit, First Nations and Métis, “live on low incomes and in poor health, with multiple chronic conditions and disabilities.”

But the HCC — an independent national agency — singled out Inuit elders for suffering exceptionally poor health care.

The HCC held meetings with senior officials and communities in Nunavut, the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the Northwest Territories and Nunatsiavut in Labrador, where people told stories of poor health care services and its causes.

“While each Inuit region is different, they share similar barriers in delivering health care in the very small, isolated communities where seniors live,” the report said.

The report said that travel is often required for the most basic health care services.

The latest National Health Expenditure Trends 1975 to 2013 report said in 2011 that Nunavut paid $223,724 for each senior between the ages 85 and 90.

And elders said they get abused when they travel south for health care.

One participant in the study, quoted in the report, said elders “are required to be escorted, and they often have little say in who does the escorting, or they choose someone who takes advantage of them.”

Some participants said younger patient escorts “disappear into town with the majority of the money provided for their meals, accommodation and other expenses.”

Inuit seniors also don’t understand diagnoses given to them and what to do after a diagnosis — such as how to take medications and manage health conditions, the report said.

Also affecting the Inuit is the change from living on the land to settled life in towns.

The HCC blames the high rate of suicide, tuberculosis and chronic health conditions on this societal change. Poverty, poor housing, food insecurity and poor nutrition is to blame too, it said.

“We also heard about a dangerous lack of emergency care in some remote communities, including no 911 system, paramedics, emergency supplies, or ambulances,” the report said.

High turnover for medical staff, fly-in only physicians, a limited number of specialists, waiting lists, little or no follow-up from medical professionals and a lack of infrastructure for “telehealth” also hamper health care for Inuit elders.

And that doesn’t even touch on diet and healthy food.

“Many seniors cannot afford to buy healthy foods — especially in the North, where food is extremely expensive,” the report said.

The HCC suggests more control by Aboriginal groups for health care services as a solution.

“It is well documented that when initiatives are developed, led, and managed by First Nations and Inuit, there is the greatest potential for success in improving health care for their people,” the report said.

By 2017, the proportion of elders within the Inuit population is expected to reach 4 per cent.

To download the full report, click here.

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