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Partnership encourages Natives to pursue health care careers

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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 (RISE), stands to substantially increase the total number of Native medical and health science students nationwide.

“One of the primary reasons health disparities still persist in American Indian and Alaska Native populations is a shortage of Native physicians, practitioners and researchers,” said Daryll DeWald, vice president and chancellor, Washington State University (WSU) Health Sciences. “This joint project enables us to expand the important work we’ve been doing to provide pathways and resources for Native students to enter the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and other medical professions, all to produce more Native health professionals who can help eliminate disparities.”

The Indian Health Service (IHS) has found that Native populations suffer disproportionately from heart disease, intrahepatic bile duct cancer, diabetes, alcoholism, mental health problems, 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.

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 project 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 RISE 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, RISE will also 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.

Media contacts:

  • Franny White, Oregon Health & Science University, 503‑494‑4158,
  • Edwin Garcia, University of California Davis School of Medicine, 916‑734‑9323,
  • Kim Papich, WSU Health Sciences, 509‑368‑6671,
  • Stephanie Craig Rushing, Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, 503‑416‑3290,

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