Revolutionary Rhoades: At Age 80, the First Native IHS Director Is Still Improving the Indian Health System


There are people who work in Indian health, and then there are those who champion it. Dr. Everett R. Rhoades, Kiowa, is definitely the latter. Professor Emeritus of Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, and senior consultant to the university’s Center for American Indian Health Research, Rhoades has improved access to quality health care for Indian people in Oklahoma and nationwide.

In 1971, Rhoades created the Association of American Indian Physicians (AAIP); it began with 15 member physicians but now has more than 360. He was among the first doctors to volunteer at the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic when it opened in 1974. Many, however, know him best as the first Native American director of the Indian Health Service (IHS), a position he held from 1982-1993.

Though officially retired, this 80 year-old husband, father of five, grandfather of 12 and great-grandfather of one is still making a difference. Rhoades volunteers at several Indian health organizations and initiatives, including the AAIP, the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic, the Southwest Intertribal Health Board, and the Strong Heart Study, a Native American cardiovascular disease study that is currently under way at the University of Oklahoma. His efforts have not gone unrecognized. In February, the American Medical Association honored him with the Jack B. McConnell, MD, Award for Excellence in Volunteerism.

An interview with Dr. Rhoades follows:

The McConnell Award is not your first award. What does professional recognition mean to you?

Professional recognition is a kind of validity check. That is, it is a confirmation that one has been able to accomplish something that is regarded as having value by one’s own peers or by organizations that share the same general ideas.

You were the first Kiowa to obtain a doctoral degree. Have you made it your business to encourage others to pursue careers in health?

Yes. It is a field that permits one to serve those who are suffering. It is a field that has a certain degree of job security. It is a field that has so many avenues for a career. …With the advent of the AAIP, we were able to design and implement a number of formal and informal recruitment activities applied throughout the country.

What challenges did you face as the first Native American director of the IHS? And did you accomplish all the goals that you had set for yourself?

I arrived at a time of some crisis, as the IHS was facing its first budget reductions. Morale was low, and, because several months had passed after Dr. [Emery] Johnson’s retirement, there was a certain degree of loss of close collegiality and mutual support throughout the system. I was also aware of the false impression held by many individuals ignorant of the challenges of Indian health that the IHS was “badly managed.” In fact, my first instructions were to get the “management straightened out.” No suggestions were forthcoming as to how to do this.

I discovered that the management of the IHS was not broken, but that the idea arose from those who had no idea of the complexity of providing health care for several hundred sovereign Indian nations across the country. I was not surprised to learn that higher levels in the department [Health and Human Services] really did not understand Indian people or the IHS.

It is for others to determine my degree of success, but I believe that with diligent attention to becoming a cheerleader for the IHS and hard work, a number of advances were made. We were successful in turning around the budget restrictions, preserving both the Community Health Representative and the Urban programs; steadily increasing the level of professional expertise throughout the IHS; and finally achieving Agency status in 1988. I also believe that the process of formal consultation with the tribes, begun in 1986, has led to a much more efficient program.

Is there anything that has not changed at the IHS but should?

It has become a cliché—but like many clichés, true—that the greatest challenge for the IHS continues to be the marginal funding available for the ever increasing numbers of needy Indians, along with more complicated illnesses.