The initiative aims to give medical training to Native Americans

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — Medical student Fred Blaisdell has a few more months before anyone calls him a doctor, but the Oneida tribesman has already learned a lesson about the importance of Indigenous doctors serving patients indigenous.

During a recent psychiatry rotation at a Minneapolis clinic, he introduced himself to a patient who lit up when she heard him speak Ojibwe.

“After that, the patient really opened up and started talking about a lot more things that she hadn’t really engaged with us before,” recalled Blaisdell, 27, who is from the Detroit area but chose the University of Minnesota Medical School at Duluth. for its national reputation training physicians from indigenous populations.


School leaders say the need for doctors like Blaisdell is huge and growing in a time of COVID-19 and other health issues. This led the university to launch a new effort to increase the number of Indigenous physicians and other social workers in Minnesota and across the country.

Last year, nearly 21,000 students graduated from medical schools in the United States. Only 160 of those new doctors — less than 1% — were Native American, Minnesota Public Radio News reported.

“It’s not just the doctors, is it? We don’t have enough aboriginal physician assistants (physician assistants). We don’t have enough aboriginal nurses. We don’t have enough Indigenous pharmacists,” said Dr. Mary Owen, director of the U’s Center of American Indian and Minority Health. “We tend to work as a team, so it’s extremely important that we develop all of these different health professions.”

Owen and others looking to recruit Indigenous students for medical schools say part of the challenge is creating better bridges between two-year tribal colleges and four-year institutions.

“Students are used to feeling that college is not for them. They doubt the jobs are for them because they don’t see themselves in the careers,” said Anna Fellegy, vice president of academic affairs at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet, Minnesota.

“And so, it takes a different kind of service to (get) students to allay some of that fear,” she said, “to dispel the mystery of the processes and get the ground firmly under their feet.”

Work should also start much earlier. In Minnesota, only about 56% of Native high school students graduate in four years.

Dr. Arne Vainio, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe who has practiced on the Fond du Lac reservation for the past 24 years, said he has always encouraged young people to pursue a career in medicine, but now he starts even earlier.

“I talk to newborns in medical school,” he said. “Parents always listen. But I make sure to talk to the baby about it directly. And, you know, let them know they have options. And then when they come for visits, we talk about it again.

When young people see him, a Native American doctor, it allows them to imagine themselves in the same position, he said, adding that when he was little, many of the Native men he saw were truckers. “And that’s all I wanted to be.”

He credits a group of people who have always encouraged and held him accountable. “They were the ones who derailed my dream of being a truck driver, and I ended up going to medical school instead.”

Owen, 56, said her journey to becoming a doctor began when she was a patient at Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage in the late 1980s. indigenous at the time,” she recalls.

A member of the Tlingit Nation in Alaska, Owen said that played a part in pushing her to go to medical school. “That anger propelled me, actually – anger at our lack of representation.”

She then earned her medical degree at the University of Minnesota. She then returned to Alaska to serve her tribal community. She returned to the University of Minnesota in 2014 in part to address the same problem she recognized 30 years ago.

Last year, Owen brought together hundreds of Native American health professionals for a summit on the issue. This has led to the creation of regional centers that work to increase the number of Aboriginal health professionals in specific regions of the country.

This is essential because some regions are experiencing more severe shortages than others. For example, she says Indian Health Service facilities in the Upper Midwest have a nearly 50% vacancy rate for doctors.

“I think if we can grow, if we can get more native students from this area, through school, to practice, they’re more likely to serve and stay in this area,” Owen said. , who is also chairman of the board of directors of the Association of Native American Physicians. “We know that Aboriginal students like to go to school in areas closer to home.

This includes Genevieve Bern, a medical student at the University of Minnesota, who counts Vainio as a mentor. Watching how he interacts with his young patients inspired her to also encourage young patients to pursue careers in healthcare.

“It’s something that I hope one day I can have these conversations with Indigenous youth,” she said.

Bern, 28, grew up in Worthington, Minnesota. She’s a native of Alaska, but she said her culture wasn’t a big part of her childhood growing up. She has since registered with her tribe and started learning the language. After graduation, she plans to work in some way with the natives.

“It’s part of who I am,” she said, “and I’ve always felt like that’s what I’m meant to give to my community.”

Nohemi M. Moore