By Addy Hatch, WSU News

A Native American medicine wheel is sketched out in multiple colors on the whiteboard outside Naomi Bender’s office; she’s using the traditional form to map out how WSU Health Sciences will recruit and support Native American students as they pursue careers in medicine, pharmacy and nursing.

Bender joined WSU six months ago as the director of Native American Health Sciences. Previously she was senior program coordinator in the University of North Dakota’s successful Indians Into Medicine (INMED) program, which has graduated 240 Native American physicians and over 400 Native American healthcare providers since it was founded in 1973. Her doctoral degree focused on the experiences of Native American students in medical school.

She has spent her first months at WSU traveling throughout the Inland Northwest, visiting tribal governments and clinics to strengthen partnerships between WSU and regional tribes.

“WSU is truly committed to creating a climate, place and space to educate Native American health care providers,” Bender said recently. “Knowing this institution is serious about its commitment to serving our tribal nations’ healthcare needs is why I moved here from the Midwest.”

Native American students more likely to work with underserved populations

Bringing more Native Americans into the health sciences is key to tackling health disparities between populations. American Indian/Alaska Natives have higher mortality rates in many categories and a shorter life expectancy than all other U.S. races, according to the Indian Health Service.

Native American students could help address those disparities, because once they become health care providers they’re more likely to work in rural areas, with medically underserved communities, and with American Indian/Alaska Native people, according to a report released in October by the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Association of American Indian Physicians.

WSU has a longstanding commitment to Native American students. A dozen Northwest tribes have signed a memorandum of understanding with the university, creating Native American Advisory Boards to WSU’s president and provost. There are support programs for undergraduate and graduate students. Native American teenagers have taken part in the Na‑Ha‑Shnee Native American Health Sciences Institute on the Spokane campus for decades, involving the colleges of nursing, pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences, and medicine. And a Native American Recruitment and Retention program launched in 1995 has contributed to the graduation of more than 60 Native American nurses.

Pathways to success start in middle school

Bender’s whiteboard details her ambitious goals for Native American health sciences at WSU – which also include tribal nations and their health and education systems; other institutions of higher education; governments; policy makers; internal and external stakeholders; and WSU partners.

Pathways to success begin as early as middle school with tutoring, mentors and test preparation, followed by programs for social and family support, and spaces that fulfill the students’ spiritual needs.

“We need programs to help those students get here, help them transition to health sciences programs, and retain them once they’re here,” Bender said. “It’s one of the ways WSU is fulfilling its promise to produce health care providers for the state of Washington and our MOU tribes from Montana, Idaho, and Oregon.”

Such programs will also help all WSU Health Sciences students feel more culturally competent when they work with a range of patients, she said.

“We know that cultural competency can have a direct effect on the health outcome of patients, so this type of programmatic focus is vital for WSU and Spokane,” Bender added.

Daryll DeWald, chancellor of WSU Health Sciences, said the impact of Bender’s work will be felt far beyond the classroom and the campus.

“One of WSU Health Sciences’ most important goals is to bring health care to people who need it the most, and improve public health in every corner of Washington,” he said. “Naomi’s work will help us get there.”