More Native Americans will be encouraged and supported as they pursue careers in health care, thanks to renewed federal funding for a unique Oregon Health & Science University program.
The Northwest Native American Center of Excellence at OHSU is receiving a total of $3.4 million over five years from the Health Resources & Services Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The funding is a competitive renewal of the initial federal grant that enabled the center’s founding in 2017, and complements other support the program has received in recent years.
“We’re determined to break down the many barriers that prevent Native Americans like me from becoming doctors, dentists, pharmacists, nurses and more,” said Erik Brodt, M.D., an Ojibwe family medicine physician who is the center’s founding director and is also the assistant dean for Native American health in the OHSU School of Medicine.
“Supporting more American Indians and Alaska Natives in their efforts to become health professionals will help provide high-quality, compassionate and culturally appropriate health care for every American,” Brodt added.
With this new funding, the center will expand beyond its initial focus on encouraging American Indian and Alaska Natives to become physicians. The center’s cornerstone initiative, the Wy’east Post-Baccalaureate Pathway — a rigorous 10-month program that prepares Natives for medical school — will grow to also include a similar pathway for the OHSU School of Dentistry. The new dental pathway is expected to host its first class of five aspiring dentists in fall 2025.
“This bold initiative addresses major health disparities,” said Ronald Sakaguchi, Ph.D., D.D.S., M.B.A., dean of the OHSU School of Dentistry. “We are excited to partner with the Northwest Native American Center of Excellence, and are proud to help create a critical new pathway to dentistry that will benefit American Indians and Alaska Natives in our region and beyond.”
The new grant also makes it possible for two other Pacific Northwest medical schools to establish their own post-baccalaureate, pre-medical pathways for Native students. Students who completed Wy’east were initially offered conditional acceptance to the OHSU School of Medicine, but that was later expanded to also offer some students conditional acceptance to the University of California Davis School of Medicine or the Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. Starting in fall 2024, each medical school will concurrently operate its own post-baccalaureate pathway. As a result, each school expects to further increase the total number of Native students who enroll in their respective M.D. programs.
And, to encourage Natives to consider working as pharmacists, the center will use some of its new funding to conduct a pharmacy-focused digital media educational campaign, advance Native recruitment for the OSU/OHSU Doctor of Pharmacy Program and increase the amount of pharmacy information shared through the center’s Tribal Health Scholars program for high school students, among other efforts.
All of this is in addition to other changes that are already in process. Separately, other federal funding will allow Wy’east to increase the number of students in each class — from up to 14 this past academic year to up to 22 this fall — with participants being selected by all three medical schools. Recent state funding will also enable OHSU to develop a similar pathway for Native nursing students. Brodt and colleagues also hope to extend Wy’east to pharmacy.
Since the Northwest Native American Center of Excellence was established in 2017, the OHSU School of Medicine has increased its total enrollment of Native medical students from 12th to 5th in the United States. To date, a total of 42 Wy’east students have completed the pathway, and 28 have enrolled in medical school.
The center is a collaboration between the OHSU Schools of Medicine, Dentistry and Nursing, the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, and University of California Davis School of Medicine. It is supported by more than $12 million in federal and state funding, private donations and support from OHSU and other academic institutions.