Conference aimed to transform health care in remote communities

"Our vision is a single system with a coordinated approach to achieve best health, best care, for a better future for our people," says Debbie DeLancey, deputy minister of health in the Northwest Territories.

Katie Willis - 06 May 2016

Remote communities, such as the Canadian North, face unique challenges in access to health care. Despite considerable investment in health-care resources, disparities persist in many regions, especially between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations.

But the challenges faced by these communities are not only common to the Canadian North. Other circumpolar regions such as Alaska, Greenland, the Nordic countries and Arctic Russia-and indeed, small and scattered communities around the globe-struggle with the very same problems.

"The best way to improve health care in remote communities is to learn from one another," explains Kue Young, dean of the School of Public Health and international expert in northern and Indigenous health.

In an effort to do just that, Young and colleagues developed Transforming Health Care in Remote Communities, an international conference focused on addressing the challenges and disparities in health care for remote regions.

From Thursday, April 28 to Saturday, April 30, the School of Public Health welcomed over 140 delegates from around the world to share innovative strategies, programs and technologies appropriate for the unique situations found in remote communities-a rare opportunity.

"One person's 'remote' is another's epicentre," said Roger Epp, director of UAlberta North and professor of political science, in his opening remarks. "This is a conference about how to understand and think outside our one-size-fits-all health-care model, and adjust what that might look like in remote communities. We are here to explore solutions and new ways of doings things."

Young and Epp were joined by policy makers, community leaders, practitioners, administrators, researchers, educators, students and industry representatives from across Canada and six other countries. There was a large contingent from both the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

Conference participants heard from the Honourable Glen Abernethy, minister of health in the Northwest Territories, who highlighted the challenges faced by his government. He spoke about the policies and programs he and his staff have instituted to make health care more accessible, effective and efficient. He was followed by Deputy Minister Debbie DeLancey who provided further details. Assistant Deputy Minister of Health Rosemary Keenainak provided the Nunavut perspective.

The conference was organized into seven themes--policies, people, places, links, costs, tools and data. Five plenary speakers addressed and explored these issues from different perspectives:

Peter Bjerregaard, professor of Arctic health from the Danish National Institute of Public Health, examined the impact of health care reform in Greenland.

Ivar Mendez, chair of surgery at the University of Saskatchewan and pioneer in remote presence technology in health care, explained how technological innovations can help redress health inequalities experienced by northerners.

Vanessa Hiratsuka, senior researcher with the Southcentral Foundation, introduced the customer-centred NUKA system of care for Indigenous people in Alaska.

Árún K Sigurðardóttir, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Akureyri, described the organization of rural health care in Iceland.

Graeme Maguire, head of clinical research at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, discussed his research on health care access by Aboriginal people in central Australia.

The diverse backgrounds and perspectives represented at the conference provided an opportunity to explore future collaborations and to share knowledge.

"The University of Alberta serves as a gateway to Canada's North and has a special relationship with the people living there. Developing strong partnerships and networks is vital to ensure that the voices and knowledge of northern people help shape health-care policy and practice," says Young.

More information regarding the conference, including presentations, photos, and a Storify of delegate comments on social media, is available on our website.