A growing group of Native American professors at Oregon Health & Science University plan to improve health care for all by helping more Native Americans become health professionals. The grassroots group is seeing early success in Oregon and aims to have an even bigger impact nationally.
“It is becoming increasingly normal for American Indians and Alaska Natives to treat patients in OHSU hospitals and clinics, and for Natives to study in our schools,” said Erik Brodt, MD, an Ojibwa family physician who is the assistant dean for Native American health at OHSU’s School of Medicine. “Some days it feels a bit like being in the middle of a dream. We are determined to make this dream normal not just for OHSU and Oregon, but across the United States”
Brodt is founding director of OHSU Northwest Native American Center of Excellencewhich was created in 2017 to make it more accessible to young indigenous people to become doctors, nurses, pharmacists or any other health professional, as well as to help working indigenous health care providers to progress in their career.
Healthcare leaders have long recommended to increase workforce diversity to reduce health disparities that are common among people of color. But Native Americans rarely have that luxury. Of the approximately 938,000 physicians working in the United States, less than one percent were Native American in 2018.
Native Americans have also been underrepresented at OHSU, although this is starting to change. In 2012, only eight Indigenous students were enrolled in the OHSU School of Medicine; today there are 29. This year, OHSU School of Medicine’s new medical class includes 12 Native American or Alaska Native students. It is believed to be the largest group of Native Americans in a single medical class at a US medical school in history. The number of Indigenous faculty at OHSU’s School of Medicine is also increasing; there were seven in 2014, compared to 13 today.
One of these students is Jared Delaney, BS, a 23-year-old member of the Klamath Tribes who grew up in Klamath Falls. Delaney became a medical student at OHSU last fall after completing a rigorous 10-month program known as Wy’east post-baccalaureate course.
As one of the initiatives of the OHSU Center, Wy’east helps talented Indigenous students overcome barriers that might otherwise prevent them from studying medicine. The pathway offers a mix of science and public health coursework, MCAT preparation, research, study and self-care skills, and tribal community health service projects.
“Getting accepted into Wy’east was like winning a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory,” Delaney said. “Being from a minority culture can be very alienating in a large institution, and having other Indigenous students and staff here to lean on and learn from has helped me tremendously this first year.”
Another is Jacob Smith, BS, a 26-year-old descendant of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla (Walla Walla) who grew up in Hillsboro. Smith was a member of the first Wy’east cohort and is now a third-year medical student at OHSU preparing to apply for dermatology residency programs.
“The people who supported me at Wy’east still support me today, and I know they will support me in the future,” Smith said. “I hope that one day I will be colleagues with the faculty that I met initially as a student of Wy’east.”
Students who successfully complete Wy’east gain conditional acceptance into a participating medical school. Initially, the pathway offered enrollment in OHSU. But at the end of 2019, two other schools – the University of California Davis School of Medicine and WSU Health Sciences’ Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in Washington State – joined, and now also offers enrollment to select students completing Wy’east.
Since the start of the first course in the pathway in fall 2018, 27 students have completed Wy’east and 22 have enrolled in medical school.
Wy’east continues to grow. The federal support will allow the pathway to increase the number of students in each class from 14 today to 22 this fall. And state funding will allow OHSU to develop a similar pathway for Indigenous nursing students. Brodt and his colleagues also hope to expand Wy’east into dentistry and pharmacy, and encourage other medical schools to launch their own similar initiatives.
The Northwest Native American Center of Excellence has other initiatives beyond Wy’east. His Tribal health researchers The program provides Indigenous high school students with a one-year paid clinical internship at their local tribal health clinic, then pairs them with a local health professional for long-term mentorship. The OHSU center also organizes a workshop to better prepare Indigenous students to apply to medical school, health career coachingand career development forum for professors at Aboriginal University Health Centers.
While Brodt and his colleagues focus on eliminating the health inequities that Native Americans too often experience, they believe that increasing the number of Native health professionals will benefit all Americans, regardless of background.
“When the first settlers arrived in what is now the United States, many of them were not in very good health and the native communities helped them survive,” Brodt said. “In the future, I believe this cycle will repeat itself and Indigenous peoples will once again be the leaders restoring our collective health.
The website This is Oregon first published this story on April 25, 2022, and part of this story also appeared in the May 1, 2022 print edition of The Oregonian.