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Partnership encourages Native Americans to pursue health care careers

Northwest universities, health board combat disparities by boosting Native enrollment in health sciences, medical school
Wy'east Post-Baccalaureate Pathway
"We believe more Native physicians will lead to better care for everyone and eliminate these health disparities, especially for tribal people," says Erik Brodt, M.D. Brodt is shown with Jacob Smith, at the Wy'east graduation in June. (OHSU/Michael Schmitt)

Three Northwest universities and a regional health board are collectively working to increase the number of Native Americans practicing health care to decrease health disparities and improve public health.

The joint project, called Reimagine Indians into Medicine, stands to substantially increase the total number of Native medical and health science students nationwide.

“Tribal communities face some of the most striking health disparities in the nation, and the number of Native medical students has been flat – at best – for the past few decades. Our team sees a connection here,” said Erik Brodt, M.D., an associate professor of family medicine in the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine. “It does not have to be this way. We believe more Native physicians will lead to better care for everyone and eliminate these health disparities, especially for tribal people. We’re striving to make medicine an accessible and welcoming career for more Natives.”

The Indian Health Service has found Native populations suffer disproportionately from heart disease, intrahepatic bile duct cancer, diabetes, alcoholism, mental health conditions, asthma and chronic liver disease. Among other factors, these health disparities can be attributed to a shortage of Native physicians and other health care professionals. Practitioners with knowledge of and sensitivity to the traditions of these communities can improve the health care that is delivered.

Wy'east Post-Baccalaureate Pathway
Dr. Meryl Sundy (left) works with Ashley Wirth during a Casey Eye Institute Outreach Program working with the Klamath Tribes community in Chiloquin earlier this year. Wirth completed the Wy'east program and is now attending medical school at OHSU. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

This makes efforts like the new partnership between the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, Oregon Health & Science University, University of California Davis School of Medicine and WSU Health Sciences and its Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine critical. The collaboration is supported by a nearly $1 million, five-year grant from IHS’s Indians Into Medicine Program, as well as more than $1 million in financial and in-kind contributions from project partners.

The project will build on the early success of the OHSU Wy’east Post-Baccalaureate Pathway, a 10-month program that offers citizens of federally recognized tribes a pathway to improve their academic skills and be successful in the medical school admissions process. UC Davis School of Medicine and WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine will join Wy’east, with the three medical schools collectively admitting 18 students to the pathway. Students will receive conditional acceptance from the medical schools when they successfully complete Wy’east.

Only about 0.4% of all working U.S. physicians are Native American. Just 44 of the 21,863 enrolled medical students nationwide this year identified as Native American alone. If all 18 Wy'east students go on to study medicine, they could increase the total number of Natives enrolled in U.S. medical schools by about 40%.

Another key aspect of the joint project is creating summer academies, six-week enrichment programs in biomedical sciences and MCAT exam preparation for undergraduate or recently graduated Native students wanting to attend medical school. Project partners will also expand the pre-existing Pacific Northwest American Indian/Alaska Native Medical School Applicant Workshop, which helps the region’s Native students prepare to apply for medical school.

Finally, the four partners also will encourage Native youth and adolescents to pursue medical careers through targeted digital and social media outreach, as well as hands-on health profession enrichment activities. Native youth can text the keyword HEALER to 97779 to receive weekly text messages that include role-model videos, resources, tips and ideas to help them navigate the steps involved in becoming a healer.

In the interest of ensuring the integrity of our research and as part of our commitment to public transparency, OHSU actively regulates, tracks and manages relationships that our researchers may hold with entities outside of OHSU. In regards to this project, Erik Brodt is the president and founder of We Are Healers, a nonprofit organization involved in the project. Review details of OHSU's conflict of interest program to find out more about how we manage these business relationships.

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