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How to Increase Canada's Aboriginal Physicians: Dr. Arlington Dungy's Initiative

Dr. Arlington DungyDr. Arlington Dungy, Associate Dean of Alumni and Student Affairs for the University of Ottawa’s faculty of medicine, may not personally know the “Aboriginal experience” but he is more than familiar with prejudice.

“As an African-American, I certainly have insights into what it is like to be a member of another minority,” says Dungy.

“I can remember, in my youth, that prejudice was an active horse in the community...and that is an experience that shapes your being forever,” he says.

Ironically, as Dungy points out, there is a shared history between Aboriginals and African-American slaves that goes beyond the experience of prejudice.

“There is a commonality between Aboriginals and the slave community...with many Aboriginals providing safe haven to slaves escaping to freedom on the underground railway,” explains Dungy.

“Anyone who has experienced something like that needs to defray that experience for others.”

In his professional quest to ‘defray that experience for others,’ Dungy has spent the last year ensuring that eight vacancies for Aboriginal students are made available in the University of Ottawa’s medical faculty.

It’s a bold step that will, in time, ensure better representation of Aboriginal medical professionals across the country.

“Currently, there are no more than 200 self-declared Aboriginal doctors in Canada and there should be about 1500-2000 to be representative of the population,” says Dungy.

Aboriginal students at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine, as of April, 2006, with Dr. DungyIt is a sad statistic that is reflected in almost every other trade and professional sector as well.

But thanks to the university’s Aboriginal admission program, 13 Aboriginal student doctors are now enrolled and, although some graduating Aboriginal doctors may decide to return to practice in their home communities, Dungy says others will head into cities given that more than 50 per cent of the Aboriginal population now lives in urban areas.

“No matter what the choice, I am confident that they will go wherever their talents lead them...and they will stimulate others to become more aware and engaged in Aboriginal healthcare issues,” he says.

The University of Ottawa’s concept of designated Aboriginal admissions can be credited to Dean Peter Walker who first proposed the idea. A collective effort followed, on the part of faculty staff members, and eventually the university’s administration was convinced to designate eight spots for qualified students.

The province of Ontario also had to approve the plan and, eventually, it also provided a small one-time only grant of $150,000 to see the program through its start-up phase.

“The next step was to learn about best practices,” says Dungy.

Due to the competitive nature of medical schools, Dungy was adamant that the entrance requirements for his eight Aboriginal spots be the same as for any other candidate.

“There was some stigma that presumed these students received some special favour,” he says, “but nothing could be further from the truth.”

“None were less qualified academically and all could have easily gone to another medical school.”

“They are all first class students and they will all make first class doctors,” he says.

Looking ahead, Dungy says the medical faculty’s Aboriginal admissions program hopes to graduate 20 Aboriginal doctors by the year 2010.

Recently, Dungy, who initially practiced as a pediatric dentist before spending the past 25 years in an academic role at the University of Ottawa, handed off the running of the program to Dr. Stanley Vollant.

“Dr. Vollant is a bilingual, Aboriginal surgeon from Quebec who assumed the position of director of Aboriginal admissions in August, 2006...and I have passed the torch to him,” says Dungy.

“Now, I have become the elder,” he adds, with a laugh.

Today, with Aboriginal healthcare issues heading the priority list of many organizations, Dungy says he’d like to challenge other academic institutions to set-up similar Aboriginal admissions programs.

In fact, he says he hopes that, considering how competitive the field of medicine is, others will try to outdo the University of Ottawa’s program.

“If all took the same approach, we could make a huge dent in the disparity of Aboriginal representation,” Dungy says.

This article first appeared in our Winter 2006 newsletter.

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