Lesser-known part of health law to lure more Native Americans into the medical field

A less-mentioned part of health reform reauthorizes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, a bill that promotes helping Native Americans bridge the gap their traditional healing culture and formal American medicine. Specifically, the bill provides mentoring programs, workplace support systems and scholarship and loan programs designed to improve recruitment and retention of Natives in the medical field.

The top American Indian and Alaska Native students are courted by the nation's most prestigious medical schools. Even so, those enrolled last fall, 623 nationwide, made up less than 1 percent of the 77,000 total medical students, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The biggest barrier to getting more tribal members to pursue careers as physicians is showing them that the goal is within reach and persuading them to leave the reservation, say officials from the Universities of Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington and Oklahoma, which produce about 25 percent of all American Indian physicians.

Although formal medical school requires Native students to break some of their cultural tenets, such as with dissecting a cadaver--which goes against the Navajo teaching to stay away from dead bodies--tribal communities generally understand that the compromise is for the greater good.

But would-be students can benefit from reassurance of Native physician role models, university officials say. The return of even one medical graduate to a tribal community can make a huge difference in the quality of care, David Bear, assistant dean of admissions at the University of New Mexico's School of Medicine, told the Associated Press. "It doesn't take a whole lot," Bear said. "We're sometimes just focusing on going from zero to one."

In a related news item, last week, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also announced that it was distributing grants to 41 health programs operated by the Indian Health Services. The grants are part of an effort to help uninsured American Indian and Alaska Native children who are eligible for coverage under Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Programs to obtain such coverage.

"There are thousands of uninsured American Indian and Alaska Native children across the country who are eligible for health coverage under Medicaid or CHIP, but not enrolled," said Secretary Sebelius. "The grants we are awarding today throughout the country will help the health organizations that work closely with these children and their families, develop effective outreach and enrollment strategies." 

In the current scenario, American Indians and Alaska Natives are three times more likely to die from diabetes, have a life expectancy of nearly five years less than other Americans and suicide rates twice that of the general population, according to the Indian Health Services.

To learn more:
- read this Associated Press article
- check out this HHS press release

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