Sitting in his office at Royal Columbian Hospital, Dr. Arun Garg is eager to discuss what Fraser Health is doing to improve the health of people of South Asian descent.
Garg, the Indian-born director of the health authority’s laboratory medicine and pathology program, tells the Georgia Straight that his community faces some pressing medical challenges.
“Over the past 50 years, things like diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and chronic renal disease are three to four times more prevalent in South Asians than in the general population,” Garg says. “So we said we should do something.”
That “something” includes a new South Asian Health Centre, which opened last November in the heart of Surrey’s large Punjabi community at 6830 King George Highway. Garg notes that Fraser Health and the Surrey–North Delta Division of Family Practice collaborated on the facility, which includes nurse practitioners, dietitians, and registered diabetes nurses.
“They’ll refer the patients [to general practitioners], but the clinic will have some resources to provide this ongoing, comprehensive, culturally sensitive, multidisciplinary approach to chronic-disease management,” Garg says.
The health authority’s jurisdiction extends from Burnaby to White Rock to Hope, and it serves 240,000 residents of South Asian ancestry. Garg is the medical lead on Fraser Health’s South Asian Health Institute, which is trying to prevent the onset of chronic diseases in the region. And in Abbotsford, there’s a New to Canada Clinic, which Garg says was created to serve new immigrants, migrant workers, and refugees.
“That’s another approach because there are lots of South Asians there,” Garg points out.
Garg grew up in the northern Indian city of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. In 1965, he moved to Saskatchewan, where he obtained a PhD in biochemistry before settling in the Lower Mainland in 1970. He graduated with a medical degree from UBC in 1977 and says he joined Royal Columbian Hospital in 1979. In June, the Canadian Association of Physicians of Indian Heritage honoured Garg with a lifetime-achievement award.
Throughout his career, he has found time to volunteer in several capacities, serving as the first cochair of SFU’s India advisory committee and president of the B.C. Medical Association, and working behind the scenes to assist the Indian Summer Arts Society. His more recent focus on South Asian health developed after the B.C. Liberal government appointed him to chair an advisory committee in 2006 on promoting trade with India. Garg says that his committee recommended nurturing personal relationships between Canadians and Indians because in India, “culture is very personal.”
The committee also concluded there needed to be a forum where people from both countries could gather and share ideas. According to Garg, the Indian consul general at the time liked these ideas and asked if he would help build links between Canada and India in the health-care field. Garg says he was drawn to this area by the magnitude of the challenge.
“Estimates are that there are close to 60 to 70 million diabetics in India, and it’s projected there will be 100 million if something is not done,” he states. “A lot of it is related to lifestyle. Most of it is Type 2.”
That led to the creation of the Canada India Network Society, which Garg chairs. In 2010, it held a conference on cardiovascular disease, the top killer of South Asians in Canada.
Last month, the society hosted a larger conference in Surrey on four themes: transferring knowledge of health-care training between the two countries, highlighting the impact of technology on health and the economy, promoting innovative primary care to manage chronic diseases, and studying the role of yoga within health care.
One of the speakers was Dr. Shivarama Varambally, an associate professor of psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in Bangalore, India. He has a special interest in the effects of yoga on psychiatric disorders, including psychosis.
Garg tells the Straight that “there’s no doubt in my mind” that yoga can alleviate depression. He also says that the breathing exercises in yoga help clean the sinuses and promote balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
In addition, he says the ancient Indian exercise can reduce the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can have negative health implications.
According to Garg, he’s come full circle, from his childhood in India to Canada and back to a better understanding of health practices in his own country.
“I have always had a great appreciation for our culture,” Garg acknowledges. “As I’ve lived here, that has given me tremendous insight into western thinking. I always felt and I truly believe that if we could combine these two, the sum is bigger than the individual approaches.”