Native American Doctors Are Needed

6.07.16 Native American Doctors - Healthy Living-Diabetes 3-Rosemary, PauletteDid you know that long before doctors began practicing medicine in the United States, Mexico, Canada and South America, medicine was successfully practiced in these same countries? These early practitioners were called healers, medicine men or women, and shamans, and they were known for their ability to use herbs, energy, touch, sacred objects and often spiritual ceremonies to help those with mental, physical and emotional ailments. Times have changed, but the need for contemporary and traditional medicine has not. We need both – Native American doctors and medicine men or women – and this is a concern to both the Native and the health care community.

Partnership With Native Americans understands the health concerns affecting Native peoples – we work weekly with hundreds of health partners on reservations in 12 states. The diabetes, cancer, cardio vascular, and morbidity rates are staggering, and we hear of these challenges directly from the providers, our partners, working to remedy them. Disparities in health care funding and access is also a concern; one that is tied to the number of Native American doctors and health care professionals.

As cited in this article, “The film Medicine Woman by Princella RedCorn portrays the life of the first Native American doctor—Susan La Flesche Picotte—an Omaha woman who became a doctor in the late 1800s. She rallied for basic health care and was a passionate prohibitionist. She practiced medicine at a time when very little was available to doctors like herself.” This is a remarkable story of the first Native American doctor dating back to the late 1800s, yet still today, similar challenges exist – access to a quality education, higher education resources and a viable support system to help Native American students pursue their dreams of becoming a doctor or health care professional.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), “in 2004 and 2005, 465 American Indian and Alaskan Natives applied for medical school in each of those two years. By 2011, this number dwindled to 379. Furthermore, the numbers of American Indian and Alaskan Natives who are first-year medical students is even smaller. In 2004, there were 202 first-year Native medical students. By 2011, there were 157, with 2009 registering the lowest number of Native students at 153 in this particular study.”

The American Indian Education Fund (AIEF), a program of Partnership With Native Americans, supports aspiring and talented students seeking a degree in the medical field. For example, Sydney S. is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. The Cheyenne River Reservation is home to about 4,000 people and encompasses two of the poorest counties in South Dakota. Sydney received an AIEF scholarship to support her goals, sharing, “I want to use my degree to be a part of the next generation to address health needs. I’ve witnessed the staffing shortages at the local Indian Health Service facility on our reservation.”

Citing “disproportionately higher levels of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and accidents experienced by Native people and first-hand recognition that South Dakota Native Americans live in the poorest countries in America,” Sydney continues. “My passion is to serve and provide holistic care to the people of our ancestry. There is a strong belief that Native Americans serving Native Americans is a critical component in addressing the key health care issues that weigh so heavily on our people.”

There is a misconception in the United States that all Native Americans get free health care and are taken care of under the treaties – this is not true. The next time you have a medical need or visit your doctor for a regular check-up, remember many Native Americans in need of these same services are living in areas where adequate health care facilities and doctors is a need yet to be met.

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