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Meet a doctor making medicine more inclusive for Black Nova Scotians

Family physician Dr. Leah Jones is working to make medicine more welcoming, inclusive and equitable for Black Nova Scotians.As Dalhousie Medical School’s first Academic Director of Black Health, Dr. Jones supports African Nova Scotian and Black learners during their training. “It all comes back to student experiences,” she said. “We’re working with students to ensure they have the resources they need to get through successfully.”

The goal is having the medical learners feel respected and valued at the university and, by extension, within Nova Scotia’s medical community, so they will stay in the province long term.

Dr. Jones is part of the Department of Community Partnerships and Global Health in Dalhousie’s Faculty of Medicine led by Dr. Gaynor Watson-Creed (Associate Dean of Serving and Engaging Society) and Dr. Shawna O’Hearn (Director of Global Health). She works alongside Dr. Brent Young, the Academic Director of Indigenous Health. “I’m joining a stellar team doing anti-oppression and anti-racism work to help change the culture of the university,” she said.

Born and raised in Dartmouth, Dr. Jones earned her undergraduate degrees in biology and medicine at Dalhousie University, giving her a personal view of the challenges Black learners face. “We have shared lived experiences,” she said.

“As we increase the number of diverse students [at Dal Med School], there will be challenges because systemic racism exists in all systems,” she explained. “There are now Black faculty members students can go to with their concerns and talk to someone who looks like they do. I hope to earn their trust and advocate at higher tables for them.”

Dr. Jones’ work also includes breaking down barriers for Black students applying to medical school. She chairs the Black Learners Admissions Pathway Subcommittee doing this work. The group expects to have its recommendations approved for the 2023–24 admissions cycle. “It’s one of the most exciting things we’re working on. We want to have an equitable pathway for Black learners to challenge the implicit and explicit racial bias that impacts the admissions process.”

Another focus she has is helping with curriculum updates within medical education at Dalhousie. Dr. Jones brings her experience as a Black physician, with changes that aim to have a direct impact on the health of Black patients. “We need the curriculum to reflect the actual population we’re serving,” she said. “For example, learning about skin conditions on Black skin, which was not done in my education. This is harmful and can lead to delayed diagnosis just because of skin colour.”

Mentorship is also key to seeing more African Nova Scotian and Black people working in health care. Dr. Jones co-chairs PLANS, a Dalhousie initiative that provides programs for Black youth to boost their participation in health careers. This includes the Sophia B. Jones Mentorship Program, which pairs Black physicians with Black med students.

Academics aside, Dr. Jones is a dedicated family doctor. She practices addictions medicine at Direction 180 in Halifax and the opioid recovery program in Dartmouth. “I love learning people’s stories and helping them navigate life and wellness,” she said.

She also provides primary care through the Nova Scotia Sisterhood, a new program by Nova Scotia Health that serves women in historic Black communities in Nova Scotia. “The hope is to rebuild trust between these communities and the health-care system with a culturally competent approach.”

Having more Black health-care providers in Nova Scotia will not only help achieve that goal but will also help address retention and recruitment challenges across the province. “Black providers are under-represented in all health professions right now,” said Dr. Jones. “I hope we can foster an environment where people feel valued, safe and respected. This needs to be a Maritime-wide effort.”

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