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Back in the 1960s and 1970s it was not easy for Native physicians to connect. They would bump into each other at a grocery store, clinic, or a training, and exchange letters and phone calls. And even then there were only a little more than a dozen doctors. But the group of 14 out of 15 physicians were determined and found a way to come together and form the Association of American Indian Physicians in 1971.

The mission of the organization “was, and remains, to improve the health of American Indians and Alaska Natives.”

There is only one founding member who is still alive, Everett R. Rhoades, Kiowa. The 86-year-old retired physician stayed home for this year’s conference, but his daughter Dr. Dorothy Rhoades, Kiowa, ran from session to session, and stopped every now and then to chat with others. Yes, she’s also a second generation Indigenous physician.

Just like Dr. Blair Matheson, his father was a founding member of the association. He died last year of lung cancer. 

Matheson made an interesting point. There was no technology. No way to know there are other Native physicians in the country unless you ran into each other or heard about one another from a mutual colleague. It was all “happenstance,” he said.

Those no technology days contributed to the lack of data on Native medical students, too.

After the group formed, everything fell into place. They got together all of the Native medical students in the country. The Association of Native American Medical Students formed in 1975.

But between that time of both organizations were established, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the institution that accredits all medical schools in the country, started collecting data on Native medical students.

Dr. Ron Shaw, former president of the organization, said during the professional organization’s early years, there were about 150 members. That grew to approximately 500 members.

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“It’s increased. However, the application enrollment of American Indians into medical school is still flat. It hasn’t increased over the last 20 years,” he said. “We think that it explains some of the health disparities.”

Data between 1973 and 2002 shows a decrease of Native students applying to medical school and even a plateau.

Shaw is referring to a report released last October called “Reshaping the Journey: American Indians and Alaska Natives in Medicine” which was a collaboration between the Association of American Indian Physicians and the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Even Norma Poll-Hunter, senior director of the Association of American Medical Colleges, who gave a presentation on the report at the conference, said the organization found it “very startling.” They see it as a “national crisis” and want to work with the Native physicians to change the statistics.

“The flat line is more concerning” to them because they did a call to all medical schools to increase enrollment to medical school for students. There are more medical schools and more seats for students, but the numbers haven’t changed for Native students.

Poll-Hunter also said that the “most reliable data” is the data when it comes to race and ethnicity is from 1978 and on. It was also the first time the association of medical colleges focused on American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

Conference goers and presenters on the data said it could be a number of factors. But Shaw said it’s temporary physicians.

There are temporary physicians working in Indian Country who are working there with “no commitment to the people or their area” and “we need Indians in there committed to the people with that cultural connection and that’s why we’re working on Indians into medicine,” he said.

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: