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Feature

Shannon Herrera and her parents at her graduation.

Shannon Herrera, M.D., shared a joyous graduation day May 6 with her parents, Ernestine and Eugene Herrera. As a member of the Kansas Kickapoo tribe, Shannon says the CAIMH program was a major draw when considering medical schools. This summer, she is helping CAIMH with a program to teach science to American Indian preteens.

Good medicine

The Center of American Indian and Minority Health helps students connect with medical careers

By Mary Hoff

Published on June 27, 2005; updated July 20, 2005

Joy Dorscher always wanted to be a doctor. "When we would play army I was always the medic," she says. "When the animals were hurt I would take care of them." But on Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, role models for medical careers were sparse. Neither of Dorscher's parents had a high school diploma. No one else in the family had gone to college. Even after she enrolled as an undergraduate at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, medical school seemed beyond imagination. Dorscher worked for nine years as a medical technologist before she finally got brave--at the time she might have said foolish--enough to apply to medical school. "I figured once I got rejected, I'd be satisfied to live the life I was living," she says. "I never thought I'd get in. I never thought it was a dream I would be able to attain." Today, a decade after earning her M.D., Dorscher is encouraging and empowering other American Indians to pursue careers in medicine as director of the Center of American Indian and Minority Health (CAIMH). Established in 1989 at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, the center--one of only three Native American Centers of Excellence designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services--is boosting the representation of American Indians in health care fields by nurturing their interest and skills from kindergarten through graduate school.

"Not everyone understands that by improving the health of the American Indian people, you improve the health of all people ... that education can be improved by having people from diverse backgrounds in the same room," Dorscher says.

And it appears to be working. In the years before CAIMH was established, an average of less than 3 percent of the entering medical school class at UMD was American Indian. Since then, that number has more than tripled.

The need Why encourage Native Americans to pursue a career in medicine? It's a matter of being able to provide culturally sensitive health care where it's needed most. "An American Indian physician who has a background in traditional ceremonies and culture can talk to Indian patients like nobody else can," says Bret Benally Thompson, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe who earned his medical degree from the University of Minnesota last year. "That doesn't mean non-Indian physician providers aren't helpful. It's just that a native health care provider is better for native people." Encouraging American Indians to become doctors is also key to enriching medical care in a broader sense. Of America's more than 800,000 practicing physicians, only 1,175 are American Indian. Better representation, Dorscher says, would be better for all of us.

The heart and soul of CAIMH is the Indian Health pathway, a series of programs that offer encouragement, mentoring, and education to youth and young adults. A council of community elders meets with program leaders quarterly, providing a link to American Indian communities and valuable perspectives on issues. In this context, the program helps young people visualize themselves as physicians--and turn that vision into reality without sacrificing their cultural heritage. Academic careers A big push for Dorscher today is encouraging American Indians with medical degrees to consider academic medicine as a career. Currently, fewer than one in 700 medical school faculty members in the United States are Native American. "Using my own and many other people's experiences, what I began to realize is that people were not making the decision about academic medicine; the decision was being made for them," says Dorscher. "I wanted students to make an active decision about where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do, and the only way they could make such a decision is to get the information." After medical school, the fellows-in-training program builds medical residents' awareness of the need for American Indians in academic medicine and the career opportunities open to them. When they complete their residency, physicians may choose to participate in a two-year faculty fellowship that provides training in administration, research, and teaching. By promoting academic medicine, CAIMH aims to not only create role models for medical students and enrich cultural presence in the classroom, but also open the doors to expanding research on American Indian health issues. "There are two very good reasons American Indians need to be faculty at medical schools," Dorscher says. "One is to be a role model... The second reason is because the only way we will be able to improve the health of the American Indian people is to bring their health issues to the forefront, and one of the ways to do that is through research."

To learn more about the Center of American Indian and Minority Health, see www.caimh.org.

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