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Supporting Native Americans in Pursuing Healthcare Careers

Jun 14, 2021 | Native American Health

Supporting Native Americans in Pursuing Healthcare Careers

AIGC 2020 Annual Report: Scholarship Breakdown

American Indian/Alaskan Natives (AI/AN) – [AG1] compared to other ethnicities in the United States – face a lower life expectancy and greater prevalence of preventable ailments such as liver disease and diabetes. Many tribal communities lack high-quality medical care due to a range of issues including high provider vacancy rates, cultural barriers, and historical underfunding of federal health programs[AG2]  [1][2][3].

An important solution to provider vacancies and these gaping health disparities is to increase the number of American Indian (AI) healthcare providers [4]. Their insight into culturally conscious health practices can be valuable to improving patient-provider relationships. Native American doctors are also more likely to serve in tribal communities and promote their health interests as leaders [5]. There are several programs in place meant to promote greater numbers of AI/AN health care practitioners.

Supporting Native Americans in Pursuing Healthcare Careers

The Physician workforce in July 2019 consisted of only 0.3% Native Americans. AAMC Percentage of all active physicians by race/ethnicity, 2018

The Indian Health Service (IHS) offers scholarships to Native American undergraduate students. Their Health Professions Scholarship includes support for graduate students and commits recipients to serving within the IHS as a full-time practitioner after completing their education and training [6].

The IHS also offers a grant called INMED (Indians into Medicine Program) to universities to fund programs that encourage Native American students to pursue a healthcare education. Through advising, tutoring, and financial aid, INMED programs support students throughout their education [7]. A similar grant, American Indians into Nursing Program, is offered to universities. The University of North Dakota’s RAIN program[AG1]  is funded from this grant and academically and financially supports indigenous students in pursuing a nursing degree [8]. University of North Dakota’s INMED Summer Institute program offers middle and high schoolers a chance to become interested in and better prepared for a healthcare career, with courses in pre-medical science subjects and meetings with American Indian health professionals [9].

Supporting Native Americans in Pursuing Healthcare Careers

Recent medical graduates and participants of University of North Dakota’s INMED program take part in a Native American blanket ceremony to celebrate their achievement. (UND Today)

Recognizing the financial barriers to education, the AIGC[AG1]  (American Indian Graduate Center) offers scholarships to American Indian and Alaskan Native students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees [10]. The Association of American Indian Physicians (AAIP) is another non-profit that supports students in achieving a pre-health education and offers mentorship by American Indian doctors. It also provides a medium for networking among AI/AN physicians and works with public health groups to address common issues faced by Native American communities [11].  

Better support for K-12 students is essential to giving students access to these subsequent support systems. The federal government has an obligation to provide education to Native American children and does so partly through the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). However, schools under the BIE consistently fail to adequately support students due to chronic underfunding and poor administration [12]. The BIE reports much lower graduation rates for Native American students than the United States average [13].  

Greater financial and structural investment in aspiring AI/AN healthcare practitioners is a key to promoting health equity in rural communities across the US. Arc Health’s co-founder, Dr. Phuoc Le emphasizes that the company’s long-term goal is to re-invest a portion of its profits into pathway programs that already exist for Native American students. Additionally, while Arc Health providers strive to support full time Native staff by approaching their position with humility, the addition of collaborative mentorship for youth and others interested in furthering their health careers would be valuable to their work in achieving health justice. Working alongside tribal communities with the intention to learn from them and respect their experiences can go a long way in supporting successful healthcare outcomes.  If you are interested in supporting some of these programs, you can donate to AAIP or to the AIGC.

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