Indigenous Health Outreach team making connections, one step at a time

Members of the Indigenous Health Outreach team posing in front of a wall with art

For the members of a small outreach team on the Downtown Eastside (DTES), it can be as simple as a cup of coffee or a quick chat about family that makes all the difference in getting the clients they serve reengaged in a health care system they’ve long avoided due to unsafe care.

At Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), Indigenous Health Outreach is an Indigenous-led team whose primary function is to advocate, walk alongside and assist people who self-identify as Indigenous. This includes connecting them to cultural supports and health services, including existing mental health and substance use programs and primary care. 

The team aims to promote Indigenous Cultural Safety through a cultural and relational strengths-based approach to care. What that looks like in practice is the current team of five Indigenous Cultural Practitioners provide outreach support and forge relationships with Indigenous people built on trust and respect.

Since April, Indigenous Health Outreach has been making critical connections with Indigenous community members— and one conversation at a time, those efforts are leading to change.

Doris Prest, an Indigenous Cultural Practitioner with the team, noted a lot of her clients don’t trust the health care system, so it can take months to build a relationship with them. But when the connection is made, it’s a moment to celebrate.

“It’s the best day in the world,” she said, adding the team is there to support and help clients access and navigate the system. 

Since the program launched, the team have provided cultural and relational strengths-based care to over 210 people with referrals to other aspects of care.

While the stats and referrals are impressive, Dr. Lindsay Farrell, the Director of Indigenous Mental Wellness & Substance Use, and Community Services, with VCH, is quick to point out it does not include all those conversations and coffees along the way. 

“It’s really that relational care that matters, having people being heard, being seen,” she said. “Having a service that is Indigenous-led and informed by culturally safe practices, leading with culture and a relational strengths-based approach, is pretty critical to the population we serve.” 

Paulette Nyce, an Indigenous Cultural Practitioner on the team, has witnessed the results of the team’s work firsthand. 

“Someone who is very shy and doesn’t speak or share much, approached me for the first time last week. I’ve been able to get folks who do not engage in any health care, seen by primary care and have other needs met through relational and relentless visits to check in with them,” she said. 

Team Lead Melissa Cameron pointed out that, unlike many outreach programs that can be short term, this one has no set timeline to make those connections. 

“This team is meeting people where they’re at,” she said. There is a relentless effort by the team to engage with people because they care.”

But the need for supports on the DTES remains much larger than what the team can handle. Each team member currently supports between 20-30 community members each and there is currently a waitlist for the program. However, Dr. Farrell is hoping to double the team’s size. Ultimately, she’d like Indigenous Health Outreach teams expanded across the VCH region.