As a former head of the Indian Health Service, Dr. Charles Grim, Cherokee, has worked with several U.S. surgeons general, as well as with tribal leaders and traditional healers from all over the world. He is well-attuned to the health disparities that minorities in this country face and well-aware of the social determinants of health. Grim has been nominated to serve as U.S. Surgeon General by the National Indian Health Board and the National Congress of American Indians.
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Grim is currently Deputy Executive Director for Health Services for the Cherokee Nation, a system that includes the 60-bed W.W. Hastings Hospital, eight outpatient health centers in 14 counties in northeast Oklahoma, an EMS service and the Jack Brown Youth Regional Treatment Center for alcohol and substance abuse. Operated by the tribe under the terms of the Indian Self-Determination Act, the health service has 2,000 employees and treats 150,000 patients annually.
Grim began preparing to become a doctor in high school, having had the opportunity to get to know medical professionals in his small community and determined that dentistry was the field that most attracted him. His parents were very supportive and his aunt and uncle encouraged him to look at the Indian Health Service after he earned his D.D.S. from the University of Oklahoma College of Dentistry in 1983. As he became more involved in management and saw the need for further education, he earned a master's in health services administration from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor School of Public Health in 1992.
He served as a U.S. Assistant Surgeon General Area Director for the IHS from 1999-2002. In 2002, President George W. Bush asked him to serve as U.S. Assistant Surgeon General in charge of the Indian Health Service, a position he held until 2007 when he assumed the duties of senior executive policy director for IHS.
After retiring from a 26-year career in the Indian Health Services, including several years in D.C., he went home to Oklahoma where the Cherokee Nation tapped him to lead its health service. Asked if he had planned a second career, Grim chuckled and noted that he has five children, ages 8 to 26. With two in college and two still at home, he expects his working life to continue for quite some time.
Grim says his experience in Washington has made him highly conversant with the Affordable Care Act and with the medical issues facing minorities. He says encouraging people to develop healthy habits is important, but he takes issue with those who blame people for poor health choices when in fact many do not have control over where they will buy their food or what foods are available to them. “Such problems require policy changes at the state and federal levels,” he says. “Options need to be available so people can pursue healthier lifestyles. Health promotion, physical activity, farmers markets, food coops are all things that lead to better health and that help the local economy as well.” Grim notes that the Cherokee Nation has been successful in implementing many such programs.
Grim says that any of the Native American candidates nominated to would do Indian Country proud. “There has never been an American Indian appointed as U.S. Surgeon General,” he says. “To be among three American Indians nominated by the National Indian Health Board and National Congress of American Indians to potentially make history and serve as the country’s highest doctor, is very humbling.”