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Doctor Shortage Prompts Push For Native Americans To Attend Medical School

Aug 19, 2019

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, American Indian and Alaska Native people suffer some of the poorest health outcomes in the United States.

But 90% of U.S. medical schools have three or fewer native students.

So insurance provider United Healthcare, and the Association of American Indian Physicians, are among those making a push to encourage more indigenous people to apply for medical school.

Native American patients often deal with missed diagnoses of PTSD, a higher chance of developing heart disease, and lowered life expectancy compared to other populations.  

Karen Knight, director of tribal relations for United Healthcare, said it’s hard to address health concerns without first addressing the system that makes it difficult to get care.

“We can't really expect to improve the access to health care or get more Native American physicians if they're not even in medical school,” Knight said.

They're also trying to reach people at a younger age.

“Many of them [indigenous students] have never even met a Native American doctor,” Knight said. “So they couldn't picture themselves in that role, because they didn't know anybody in that role.”

A white paper focused on strategies to expand Native American health care was recently presented at a gathering in Chicago organized by the Association of American Indian Physicians.

It emphasized that “one of the most pressing challenges in Indian Country is a shortage of health care professionals, especially physicians.”

In some areas, physician vacancy rates are nearly 30%, prompting the use of short-term physician contracts to meet tribal health needs. But “many of these health care professionals lack a long-term commitment and cultural connection to the land and its people.”

This came on the heels of a report last year from AAIP that shows American Indians and Alaska Natives have experienced minimal gains in representation across the medical education continuum.

From the report:

Despite the growth and expansion of medical schools over the past 30 years, the number of applicants and matriculants identifying as AI-AN alone decreased from academic year 2006-07 to 2017-18, while those identifying as AI-AN in combination with at least one other race or ethnicity increased slightly over the same period. Small numbers of AI-AN individuals are also found in clinical and medical school classroom settings. In 2016, individuals reported as AI-AN (alone and in combination with another race) represented 0.56% of the 727,398 active physicians, and 0.48% of the 174,570 total full-time faculty members at U.S. medical schools and teaching hospitals.

Credit Courtesy of United Healthcare