Advocating for a stronger pipeline of Indigenous physicians

Victor Lopez-Carmen, a Harvard medical student and co-chair of the United Nations Indigenous Youth Caucus, is working to increase Indigenous representation in medicine, ABC News reports. Growing up on the Pascua Yaqui reservation in Tucson, Arizona, Lopez-Carmen, who identifies as Yaqui and Dakota, experienced firsthand the health care inequities faced by lndigenous communities. 

To close these gaps, Lopez-Carmen and others in the medical profession are building pipelines for Indigenous students interested in medicine and creating programs that teach medical students cultural competence in caring for Native patients.

Health equity crisis in Indigenous communities

The legacies of colonization—from the destruction of tribes’ traditional sources of healthy food and clean water to a lack of sufficient federal funding for Indian Health Services (IHS)—has had a detrimental effect on Indigenous communities for generations. Indigenous people have a shorter lifespan and higher rates of chronic disease than other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., according to the U.S. Indian Health Service. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC found that Indigenous people also were 3.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID than white Americans.

Related: Study highlights lack of socioeconomic diversity at medical schools >

Systemic inequities in access to preventive care and vital medical treatment also reflect the dearth of Indigenous physicians. Out of an estimated 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States, there are only 3,400 physicians, which accounts for just 0.4% of the physician workforce, according to the American Medical Association.

With few Native American students in medical school pipelines, the Association of American Medical Colleges has also found that less than half of M.D.-granting medical schools in the U.S. enrolled more than five Native students. As of 2017, only 11% of M.D.-granting schools in the U.S. reported that they included Native American health content in their curricula.

Bridging gaps between the medical field and Indigenous communities

For Lopez-Carmen, creating pipelines to medical school is crucial in order to achieve better Indigenous representation in medicine and make health care more accessible to Indigenous communities. In partnership with Harvard medical professor Dr. Valerie Dobiesz, Lopez-Carmen has developed the Ohiyesa Premedical Program, named after Lopez-Carmen’s great grandfather, who was the first Native American man to become a physician in the U.S.

The program provides Indigenous students and graduates from tribal and community colleges with opportunities to receive first-aid training, shadow physicians, and scrub in on real surgeries at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Participants also give presentations to Harvard physicians on Indigenous health issues. Lopez-Carmen also plans to create another Harvard program in which medical students learn about Indigenous health through rotations at the Pascua Yaqui reservation.

Related: Tribal colleges, devastated by the pandemic, deserve more support, advocates say >

This year, however, Lopez-Carmen is taking a break from medical school to learn Lakota, his Indigenous language. Trained in traditional and Western medicine, he also plans to eventually return to his reservation to work in pediatrics.

“We need Victor and people like him to succeed so our people can trust people like him,” says Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Great Sioux Nation and 19th keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe and Bundle. “He gets a chance to pursue modern medicine to help us live longer and be healthier,” Yucupicio tells ABC News. “I think it’s beautiful that he wants to come back.”

ABC News
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