Racial Bias in the Canadian Healthcare System
When people are sick or injured, they expect that the healthcare system will work for them. Sometimes they get the care they need, but at other times, they leave without getting the necessary help, especially if they are non-white. Racial bias is often a problem in the Canadian healthcare system, but people can try to make it fair. If everyone has access to good healthcare, regardless of race, Canadians will live healthier and better lives.
Examples of racial bias are everywhere in the Canadian healthcare system. One of the worst cases was the experience of Brian Sinclair, a wheelchair-bound Indigenous man from Winnipeg who died in September 2008. He had gone to see a doctor about a bladder problem. The doctor sent him to the emergency department of the Health Sciences Centre.
Sinclair waited for someone to take care of him, but the doctors were busy with other patients. They failed to treat him, and he died after waiting thirty-four hours in the emergency room. A later inquiry showed that emergency room staff believed that he was drunk, when instead he was very sick.
Not every situation is as bad as the case of Brian Sinclair, but people in Canada have experienced many other examples of racial bias. For example, medical care tends to favour treatments based on tests and medications rather than traditional treatments that are a large part of the history and culture of Indigenous groups and other non-white people. Laws related to harvesting and developing on Indigenous territories means that people do not have the access to traditional medicines as they should.
Doctors, like many other Canadians, often have biases about the people they see. They may assume that alcohol or drug use are problems for Indigenous people, and they may have biases about other races, as well. These biases can cause doctors to listen less carefully than they should and to make false assumptions about the causes of people’s illnesses. If these biases are obvious, they can also add to a patient’s stress and make recovery more difficult.
In the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous, South Asian, and black people have been hospitalized more often than white people. They have also been more likely to experience long term symptoms that can have a major effect on their lives. Although some of these people might receive good care, many of them do not.
One reason for these differences is the difficulty in gaining access to care and to the conditions that help them recover more fully. Many non-white people, especially new immigrants, work in low-wage jobs and live in poorer housing than others do. This can affect their health in many ways. Low wages mean that they are less likely to be able to take time off work when they are sick, and minor problems can become worse.
Low-income people face many barriers in healthcare. Even if they can take time off work to visit a doctor, they still need transportation to the hospital or doctor’s office. They might not be able to afford the medications necessary for treating the disease, even if they get a prescription. While this problem is not only a racial issue, it tends to have the greatest effect on people who are already facing other barriers.
Racial bias in healthcare is often difficult to identify and to change. However, becoming aware of the problem is the first step. If you let people know about the problem, you could be part of the solution.
Amin, Faiza. “Racial Bias Reaches Tipping Point in Canada’s Healthcare System.” https://toronto.citynews.ca/2019/12/04/racial-bias-healthcare-system/.
Bascaramurty, Dakshana. “Racial Bias in Canada’s Health Care System Makes Diagnosing Long COVID Even More Challenging, Experts Say.” https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-long-covid-health-care-racial-bias-diversity/.
Gunn, Brenda L. “Ignored to Death: Systemic Racism in the Canadian Healthcare System.” https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Issues/IPeoples/EMRIP/Health/UniversityManitoba.pdf.
Phillips-Back, Wanda. “Confronting Racism within the Canadian Healthcare System: Systemic Exclusion of First Nations from Quality and Consistent Care.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7697016/.