Historic Alberta agreement could transform First Nations healthcare

Almost every lifesaving initiative starts with a signature. Such was the historic case last Friday, as Alberta's Deputy Minister of Health and Wellness, Marcia Nelson, signed an immunization data sharing agreement between the province and the Siksika First Nations community.

This represents the first immunization data sharing agreement in Alberta between the government and a First Nations community, and the ripples are expected to be far-reaching.

As we have noted throughout our involvement with the Community Health & Immunization Program, there has long been a disparity between the health of First Nations' residents and that of the rest of Albertans. Most noticeably, people in these communities suffer from higher rates of vaccine-preventable diseases.

Last fall, the Siksika and Stoney communities sought to narrow this gap by moving their children's immunization records from paper to digital storage —€” a technology that had long been relied on by Alberta Health Services, but one that was new to a First Nations healthcare system.

Thanks to their example and the tireless work of OKAKI Health Intelligence, who developed the online system for the First Nations health services, a further 15 communities throughout the Prairies have moved to digital tracking, and over 50,000 immunization records have so far been logged.

First glances at these records revealed early on that a good deal of the First Nations' children were either being over- or under-immunized. Through better tracking of patients in these areas, vaccines should be delivered more effectively, and the rate of preventable diseases is expected to go down.

But where this system still falls short is when residents travel off reserve and visit a clinic run by the Alberta Health Services. Currently they enter these centres with a blank slate, as the provincial health professionals have no electronic record of First Nations members' medical histories. Being two separate entities, First Nations' communities and the provincial health services have traditionally never carried out two-way electronic communication.

At the very least, this has led to some members of these communities being over-immunized. At the worst, it has meant that disease epidemics have gone unnoticed, including a dramatic increase of HIV/AIDS in Saskatchewan's First Nations communities (as Robin Winsor discovered this past February at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science).

By opening lines of communication with regards to children's immunization records, it is hoped that there will be more collaboration and cooperation between the Alberta and First Nations health services, leading to a healthier population overall.

Today, the health centre in Siksika offers one of the most advanced immunization delivery systems in Canada, and the CEO of the community's Health Services, Tyler White, has made it his mission to adopt the most "innovative, leading-edge solutions to complex health challenges" in order to "make First Nations' public health programs the safest and most effective in the world."

I, for one, greatly admire the take-charge spirit of First Nations leaders like Tyler White who are creating their own solutions for their technological problems, and hope that the same level of support will be offered to those communities that are unable to fix these issues themselves.