Bolstering Native and Indigenous Representation in Medical School

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Each year, more than 100 medical students representing at least 11 federally recognized Native American tribes enroll at the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation. (Photo courtesy of OSU’s Center for Health Sciences)

The underrepresentation of Native American and Indigenous students in medical school has long been an issue of concern, and many find themselves among the scarce few, or even the sole representation, in their classes. Numerous medical schools and some students throughout the country are actively leading targeted efforts to support, recruit, and retain future Indigenous physicians.

For example, Oklahoma State University (OSU) has multiple programs, projects, and initiatives geared toward attracting Native students to their college of osteopathic medicine and addressing health equity in Indigenous communities. These include the Native Explorers STEMM Summer Internship and the Native American Pre-Admissions Workshop, which provide hands-on research experiences, improve competitiveness in the medical school application process, and support Native students throughout their academic journey.

OSU’s Center for Health Sciences partnered with the Cherokee Nation to establish the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation, the first and only tribal affiliated medical school in the country.

Operating since 2021, the facility treats members of the tribal community and places an emphasis on recruiting students from Native populations in Oklahoma and throughout the U.S. As of February 2024, the college’s 107 enrolled students represent approximately a dozen federally recognized tribes.

“We want every child growing up in Oklahoma to feel that being a physician is an attainable goal,” said Natasha Bray, DO, dean of the college.

“Our goal is to recruit students from the very communities that need physicians, give them the opportunity to pursue their education in a rural community at a school that is on tribal land, and complete their residency within a tribally operated health care center,” she said. “Students have the opportunity to pursue their education while continuing their relationships with their family, their community, and their tribe.”

Across the country at Duke University School of Medicine, two students — Emily Alway and Marilyn Yamamoto — founded the Native and Indigenous Medical Student Association in 2022, recognizing the need to build supportive connections among this underrepresented population.

The association provides students with a space to connect over their heritage and support and mentor one another while navigating the challenges and demands of medical school. By creating an on-campus community, the group hopes to encourage enrollment in medical school, which will lead to more Native and Indigenous physicians and overall better health outcomes for patients belonging to these populations, says Yamamoto, a fourth-year medical student.

“One thing that’s shared among a lot of individuals in the Native community is the aspect of being the first or being the only one, and just feeling like you’re swimming in a sea alone,” said Yamamoto. “In medical school, that can be really daunting. Finding other people who have gone through the same path, the same trials, struggles, it really helps.”

On a national scale, the Association of Native American Medical Students (ANAMS) is a resource network for Native and Indigenous people in medicine and other health professions. The association serves these students by connecting them across institutions to share their experiences and support each other’s journeys in health care.

The organization also provides access to numerous scholarship and fellowship opportunities for its members. ANAMS’ ultimate goal is to increase the number of Native and Indigenous health care professionals, which experts believe will lead to better health outcomes for these populations, which have historically been highly marginalized, underserved, and underresourced.

“We need to increase the number of AIAN [American Indian and Alaska Native] physicians because research has shown that patient-physician matches lead to better health outcomes,” said Hailey Baker, a third-year medical student at the University of Minnesota Medical School and ANAMS member.

“The system is failing our people from birth, and this has a cascade effect on the amount of AIAN people pursuing higher education,” Baker said. “I encourage everyone to educate themselves on the social determinants of health affecting Native populations, because whether you are practicing in a tribal health center, Indian Health Services, a rural community, or a metropolitan area, you will be caring for AIAN patients.”