Project looking for ways to improve Indigenous mothers' and infants' health through culturally appropriate interventions

Five-year research project gets $1-million federal funding boost.

A research project that is looking into how to improve the health of Indigenous women and their babies in Canada's North through culturally appropriate, community-driven interventions got a major funding boost recently.

Sangita Sharma, the Capital Health Chair in Indigenous Health in the U of A's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry who leads the Indigenous and Global Health Group, said Indigenous women living in the Canadian Arctic have higher rates of infant and maternal mortality, as well as rising rates of chronic disease and obesity, compared with the rest of Canada.

Her team will embark on a five-year project to conduct in-depth interviews with Indigenous women of childbearing age in communities around the Northwest Territories, thanks to a $1-million grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

The research will inform culturally appropriate and targeted interventions for improved health outcomes.

"We want to collect evidence through one-on-one interviews on what people's recent experiences have been in terms of accessing health care during pregnancy and then six months postpartum. We also want to look at other practices such as breastfeeding and at food security," Sharma said, noting that maternal diet can have an impact on childhood obesity and chronic diseases later in life.

She said such in-depth consultation is essential to understanding the individualized needs of northern communities, where the availability of health-care facilities and services can vary widely.

"A community of 400 people will have completely different services than one of 800 or 3,600," she said. "And it's not only accessing the health care and services, but also looking at what supports there are for women in the Arctic who have just given birth."

Once they've collected the evidence, Sharma and her research team will work with the communities to develop, implement and evaluate evidence-based, sustainable, community-driven interventions that will support the communities in improving maternal and infant health care.

She said she hopes her team's findings can be widely shared to support other Arctic communities facing similar issues and help shape health policy at the local, territorial and federal levels.

Though the project is just ramping up, Sharma and her team have been conducting similar research in the Northwest Territories for 15 years, consulting with communities on access to health-care services such as cancer screening. Another project currently underway, also funded by CIHR, is examining the experiences of Indigenous seniors in accessing health care.

Sharma said her previous work helped establish relationships with communities, elders and Indigenous leaders, as well as the Government of the Northwest Territories, without which such research would not be possible.

"We are very fortunate and grateful to be able to work with the communities," she said. "We need to find out what communities want, how we should undertake this work and what questions we should be answering in addition to our scientific questions, and to identify people in the community to train to implement these interventions at the local level in the local language."

Funding for Sharma's maternal health research project is one of 28 project grants awarded to U of A researchers, totalling more than $11 million, through CIHR's Project Grant Competition.