Including content on Indigenous health in medical school curricula has become a widely-acknowledged prerequisite to reducing the health disparities experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada. However, little is known about what levels of awareness and interest medical students have about Indigenous peoples when they enter medical school. Additionally, it is unclear whether current Indigenous health curricula ultimately improve students’ beliefs and behaviours.
A total of 129 students completed a 43-item questionnaire that was sent to three cohorts of first-year medical students (in 2013, 2014, 2015) at one undergraduate medical school in Canada. This survey included items to evaluate students’ sociopolitical attitudes towards Indigenous people, knowledge of colonization and its links to Indigenous health inequities, knowledge of Indigenous health inequities, and self-rated educational preparedness to work with Indigenous patients. The survey also assessed students’ perceived importance of learning about Indigenous peoples in medical school, and their interest in working in an Indigenous community, which were examined as outcomes. Using principal component analysis, survey items were grouped into five independent factors and outcomes were modelled using staged multivariate regression analyses.
Generally, students reported strong interest in Indigenous health but did not believe themselves adequately educated or prepared to work in an Indigenous community. When controlling for age and gender, the strongest predictors of perceived importance of learning about Indigenous health were positive sociopolitical attitudes about Indigenous peoples and knowledge about colonization and its links to Indigenous health inequities. Significant predictors for interest in working in an Indigenous community were positive sociopolitical attitudes about Indigenous peoples. Knowledge about Indigenous health inequities was negatively associated with interest in working in an Indigenous community.
Students’ positive sociopolitical attitudes about Indigenous peoples is the strongest predictor of both perceived importance of learning about Indigenous health and interest in working in Indigenous communities. In addition to teaching students about the links between colonization, health inequities and other knowledge-based concepts, medical educators must consider the importance of attitude change in designing Indigenous health curricula and include opportunities for experiential learning to shape students’ future behaviours and ultimately improve physician relationships with Indigenous patients.