Mac and Weeneebayko Area Health Authority work to increase access to eye care for children in Indigenous communities 

Indigenous health issues are rampant in Canada, finding their roots deeply embedded within systemic racism and the colonial history of our country. From inequitable access to primary and preventative care services to instances of racism in the hospital room, Indigenous communities have long faced detrimental inequities in Canada’s healthcare system.

Among these many issues is the reduced access to eye health and vision care within many Indigenous communities, especially ones that are removed from urban centres. This problem has not received adequate attention from Canadian authorities, resulting in a lack of action to address it.

To address this inequity in Northern Ontario, McMaster University has partnered with the Weeneebayko Area Health Authority to create the Indigenous Children Eye Examination. The partnership aims to provide immediate access to vision screenings and eye examinations for children and youth aged between six months and 18 years. The ultimate goal of the project is to ensure sustainable access to eye examinations and eye health services. 

The project is being led by Dr. Kourosh Sabri, associate professor of surgery at McMaster and a pediatric ophthalmologist at McMaster Children’s Hospital. The project also involves many others at McMaster, including McMaster computer department graduates who helped design the initiative.

Currently, the partnership between McMaster and WAHA is making childhood eye health services accessible to seven communities along the James and Hudson Bays, including Attawapiskat First Nation, Kashechewan First Nation and Moose Cree First Nation in Moose Factory.

ICEE would not have been possible without the support from Indigenous communities and leaders from the seven communities involved along the James and Hudson Bay areas. Indigenous leadership and initiative have been a key aspect and pillar of this project.

The first eye clinic was held in Moose Factory in June 2020. The program has adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic by utilizing remote tests that are performed virtually via telemedicine. McMaster and WAHA are also using the opportunity to train local healthcare practitioners along the James and Hudson bays.

“We have committed to developing a program where we train local nurses, local healthcare workers in how to carry out a vision screening test,” explained Sabri.

Better access to eye examination and vision care services for children in Northern Ontario will benefit the health of those in these Indigenous communities in many, far-reaching ways. Many children in these communities have never before had an eye exam in their life, which makes this project a much-needed relief.

However, in addition to improving the vision of these children, the partnership will also allow screening of undiagnosed eye diseases, allowing healthcare practitioners to preemptively treat any conditions they may find.

“So the benefit is that you can start screening lots and lots of children for undiagnosed disease which if it goes undiagnosed for much longer, it can lead to chronic irreversible vision loss,” said Sabri.

The hope for the project is that it can be used in the future to mitigate the more widespread effects of systemic racism and/or lack of healthcare access across Indigenous communities in Canada. By using evidence gained from the ICEE project, those involved with the partnership hope to apply similar methods of care delivery in different areas of healthcare to other communities in need.

“My hope is that the model that we’re developing with ICEE — after a year or two or more of this project — we will be able to show a large body of evidence of how you can develop a sustainable healthcare model for at least eye care for the children, which can be then transplanted . . . in other parts of the country,” explained Sabri. 

“My hope is that the model that we’re developing with ICEE — after a year or two or more of this project — we will be able to show a large body of evidence of how you can develop a sustainable healthcare model for at least eye care for the children, which can be then transplanted . . . in other parts of the country,” explained Sabri. 

The benefits of this project experienced by the Indigenous communities and families in the James and Hudson Bay areas are important to note. The ICEE project has allowed their experience of eye care to change completely for the better.

Dr. Elaine Innes and her family are of the Moose Cree First Nation from Moose Factory. Innes is a family physician, and has witnessed, experienced and enjoyed the benefits of this project.

“This project has been a great benefit for our communities along the James Bay. Currently, we do not have access to vision care within our communities and must travel south. For our most remote community, it would mean at least three and a half hours by plane to Timmins to access any optometry services, for ophthalmology then the travel would go as far as Kingston, Ontario,” said Innes.

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