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Medical center to serve Northern Plains

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RAPID CITY, S.D. - In the past, research data on health care in Indian country has been incomplete and sometimes inaccurate or completely non-existent. A new research center for the Northern Plains American Indian population hopes to solve that problem.

For hundreds of years tribes have had the responsibility to their members to maintain a healthy environment. American Indians have survived war and small pox-infested blankets, but new diseases arise and information is required to combat them.

To assist in the improvement of health conditions, research data and programs that promote the alleviation of exploding epidemics have been developed.

Announced on July 21, an Indian Health Service Grant was approved for $300,000 to begin the process of opening the Northern Plains Epidemiological Center. The grant offers the same amount for fiscal year 2004 and other grants will be sought to completely fund the center.

"You have been talking about the Epi-center for years. We in [Washington] D.C. have had numerous discussions about that. You must have accurate data. It will produce tribal specific data to quantify the diseases in your communities," said Michel Lincoln, deputy director for IHS.

The announcement about the new Epi-Center came during the Aberdeen Area Tribal Chairman's Health Board meeting. The new center will be located in Rapid City. The location is important as the majority of American Indians living on reservations in the Great Plains are within the Rapid City area. The Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, Lower Brule and Crow Creek Sioux Tribe reside within a few hours of Rapid City.

The new center will help solve an on-going problem for the Northern Plains; eliminating the health disparities of tribal people in the area.

"If we are to make progress in reducing and ultimately eliminating the health disparities that currently exist for our people, we must have the ability to make accurate baseline measurements of our health status, and monitor changes over time," said Dr. L.D. Robertson, epidemiological consultant for the tribal chairman's board.

"The center will emphasize developing projects that deliver services of direct benefit at the community level. It will address the health priorities developed collaboratively with the tribes and the Aberdeen Area Indian Health Service," Robertson said.

A focus of the research center will be to provide support for disease prevention based on the cultural medicine wheel concept of the spiritual, physical, social and mental dimensions of health.

The tribes will be empowered to influence research projects. It will be the Northern Plains tribes that decide what health problems or issues will be researched to better serve the immediate region.

Initial partnership with the center comes from the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC). Doctors from UNMC will provide assistance with grant proposals and data analysis. At this time UNMC is in the process of working on five research projects in the Northern Plains where people are under represented in terms of medical care.

UNMC will also recruit and train students in the medical professions and affiliated health fields. Curriculum will be developed for tribal colleges to best serve students that wish to participate.

The partnership with UNMC will draw in the expertise of 150 medical faculty members, according to Sherriann Moore, research administrator for UNMC.

"We make available state of the art equipment and facilities, grant funds, telemedicine and grant writing.

"The proposed development of the Epi-Center will depend on grant writing and it will need good grant writing and our doctors are good grant writers and they want to get involved," Moore said.

The new center will not be just about research. As one tribal member said to the chairman's health board, "we have been researched to death."

The center will house a prevention office that will administer many projects that have been developed within the communities and health provide the support that will see the projects through to reality. The center will also provide information that will allow communities to create programs or activities that will look at possible behavioral modifications that will lead to improved health conditions.

A high priority will be placed on youth health.

The new center will be one among six Epi-Centers that already exist in the IHS system across the country.

The Northern Plains Tribal Chairman's Health Board serves the second largest population of American Indians. The Southwest and Navajo health boards serve larger populations.

When the new center opens in Rapid City, the AATCHB will move its offices there as well. The board operates several health programs including the Northern Plains Healthy Start program that has helped reduce the high infant mortality rate.

The center will initially hire five people, and as funding and work increases additional staff members will be added.