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Concern Growing Over Shortage of Native Physicians

The American Indian/Alaska Native population exceeds five million and has increased by 27 percent since the 2000 United States Census Bureau Report. Despite this positive population growth, there is an alarming inverse to this equation: the number of Native people applying to medical school and earning medical degrees is shrinking.

Statistics released by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) show that in 2004 and 2005, 465 American Indian and Alaskan Natives applied for medical school in each of those two years. By 2011, this number dwindled to 379. Furthermore, the numbers of American Indian and Alaskan Natives who are first-year medical students is even smaller. In 2004, there were 202 first-year Native medical students. By 2011, there were 157, with 2009 registering the lowest number of Native students at 153 in this particular study.

These statistics are particularly troublesome for the leadership of the Association of American Indian Physicians (AAIP), whose nationwide membership is slightly more than 300. Dr. Donna Galbreath is Athna Athabaskan and the president of AAIP. She says the problem starts with the small amount of Native people who graduate from both high school and college. A second issue is that Native youth are not exposed to Native physicians in their communities, Galbreath says.

“A lot of Indian people don’t think about going into medicine as a career,” Galbreath says. “That is something that the AAIP has been working on for a number of years, is trying to expose more students to medical careers. If you don’t think about it or if it’s really foreign, it’s not something you’re going to want to do.”

Galbreath is no stranger to the hardships of attaining an education. A high school dropout, Galbreath earned her GED and went on to college, eventually studying a pre-medicine undergraduate track, where she found success with her science courses. But it was one particular chemistry professor that proved to be her first major academic obstacle.

“When I took chemistry, I didn’t do so well,” Galbreath admits. “When I went and talked to the professor about how to do get my grade up, the professor’s first response to me was, ‘What chemistry course did you take in high school?’ I said ‘I didn’t take a chemistry course in high school.’ His response was ‘You will never pass this course. You need to drop it.’”

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However, she didn’t drop the course. Instead, she focused on her overall goal and didn’t let that particular professor stand in her way. In order to keep other Native students from having a similar experience, Galbreath said that Native students need to be exposed at a younger age to the “STEM” courses of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

From an organizational standpoint, the current goals of AAIP are to encourage tribal schools—from elementary to the tribal college level—to use AAIP physicians as a resource for career days. In this way, Native students can hear the stories of physicians who have reached their goals and who may have come from backgrounds similar to theirs.

“Getting that story out to our students is very important, to let them know that our Native physicians are just like them,” says AAIP Executive Director Margaret Knight of the Laguna Pueblo. “They come from similar backgrounds. [Students] too can achieve their goals.”

Other programs of AAIP include pre-admission workshops for potential medical school students and mentoring programs to Native medical school students and residents.

At the close of her discussion with Indian Country Today Media Network, Galbreath offers strong advice for Native people wanting to study of medicine to become a doctor.

“You have to stay focused on what your goal is, because there’s lots of things with the process that aren’t very pleasant and actually don’t fit within cultural beliefs of Indian people,” she says. “You’re going to encounter things that don’t feel right to you based on your own belief system. You’ve got to stay focused on that vision of why you want to be a physician. You look at the obstacle as something to be overcome, and you keep looking forward.”