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Lizzie Wapoose, who suffers from heart and liver problems, watches her 11-month-old niece, Cleo, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, on the Fort Hope First Nation, Ont.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Treating a heart attack is a race against time. A delay of even a few minutes can mean the difference between life and death for many patients.

Even under good circumstances, administering treatment in a timely manner can be a challenge, as many patients hesitate before seeking help for symptoms. Now imagine living in a remote community, being unfamiliar with the health-care system and speaking English as a second language.

This is the reality for many aboriginal people in Canada. A new report suggests major improvements are needed to help deliver better, faster care.

The report, published by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, found that Inuit living in remote areas with a high concentration of Inuit residents experienced heart attacks at much younger ages than those living in areas with a low aboriginal population.

The report also found that, compared to areas with few aboriginal people, residents of areas with a high concentration of Inuit had fewer hospital admissions for heart attacks. This isn't necessarily good news, however, as it could simply mean residents of remote Inuit communities weren't able to make it to a hospital or health-care centre for treatment. Generally, residents of Inuit areas had to travel an estimated 500 kilometres to access the nearest hospital, compared with 250 kilometres travelled by those in remote communities with a low aboriginal population.

"We are talking about long, long distances here to actually receive care for a condition we know is more time sensitive," said Sushma Mathur, manager of the Canadian Population Health Initiative at CIHI. "There are definitely challenges in terms of the aboriginal population.… There is definitely a lot more that can be done."

It's an urgent issue, considering the fact that natives in Canada face a disproportionately higher rate of health issues than the general population, including chronic disease, disability and infectious disease, such as tuberculosis.

Some factors contributing to these problems are the difficulty many aboriginal people have accessing the health-care system and getting effective, timely care.

Now, a growing number of institutions are searching for solutions to bridge these gaps. For instance, this week, the Saskatchewan Health Region announced the creation of an aboriginal health service. The initiative will mean giving native patients access to health educators who can act as interpreters, provide cultural support and help them navigate the health-care system. In addition, they can help patients wade through the red tape of federal health coverage, such as how much funding may be available to cover transportation costs.

"It's pretty intimidating coming into a city the size of Saskatoon," said Maura Davies, president and chief executive officer of the Saskatoon Health Region. "For many of our first nations and Métis patients and families, it's a pretty scary and uncomfortable experience."

She added that much more can be done to help improve outcomes for native communities, such as making better use of technology to connect with patients, rather than having them travel long distances for a quick follow-up appointment.

Other important areas to look at are outreach programs that can provide health care to native populations in or near their home communities.

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