SACRAMENTO, Calif. January 15, 2020 – The UC Davis School of Medicine has joined with two other universities and a regional health board in a collaborative effort to increase the number of Native Americans practicing health care.

The joint project, called Reimagine Indians into Medicine, or RISE, stands to substantially increase the total number of Native medical and health science students nationwide, which in turn can decrease health disparities and improve public health.

“The UC Davis School of Medicine is firmly committed to reducing health disparities, and one of the most successful ways to achieve that is to matriculate more students from diverse backgrounds,” said Allison Brashear, dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine. “Studies show that students who belong to underrepresented minority groups are drawn to careers in medicine where they can care for underserved populations – which also happen to have the greatest health disparities.”

Erik Brodt, M.D., of Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), with student Jacob Smith, at the Wy’east post-bac pathway graduation in Portland in June. UC Davis has joined OHSU and other institutions in a major initiative to boost Native American medical school enrollment with students who successfully complete the Wy’east program. (Photo: Michael Schmitt)

The Indian Health Service (IHS) has found Native populations suffer disproportionately from heart disease, diabetes, alcoholism, mental health conditions, asthma, chronic liver disease and intrahepatic bile duct cancer. Among other factors, these health disparities can be attributed to a shortage of Native physicians and other health care professionals. Practitioners with knowledge of and sensitivity to the traditions of these communities can improve the health care that is delivered.

This makes efforts like the new partnership between the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, Oregon Health & Science University, University of California Davis School of Medicine and Washington State University Health Sciences and its Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine critical. The collaboration is supported by a nearly $1 million, five-year grant from IHS’s Indians Into Medicine Program, as well as more than $1 million in financial and in-kind contributions from project partners.

“This initiative will allow the UC Davis School of Medicine to help identify, prepare, enroll and train a greater number of Native American students, each of whom is likely to make a tangible difference in achieving health equity in their home communities where health disparities continue to persist,” Brahsear said.

The project will build on the early success of the OHSU Wy’east Post-Baccalaureate Pathway, a 10-month program that offers citizens of federally recognized tribes a pathway to improve their academic skills and be successful in the medical school admissions process. UC Davis School of Medicine and WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine will join Wy’east, with the three medical schools collectively admitting 18 students to the pathway. Upon successful completion of Wy’east, students will receive conditional acceptance from the medical schools.

Fewer than 1% of all working U.S. physicians are Native American. Just 44 of the 21,863 enrolled medical students nationwide this year identified as Native American alone, including two at UC Davis. If all 18 Wy’east students go on to study medicine, they could increase the total number of Natives enrolled in U.S. medical schools by about 40%.

Another key aspect of the joint project is creating summer academies, six-week enrichment programs in biomedical sciences and MCAT exam preparation for undergraduate or recently graduated Native students wanting to attend medical school. Project partners will also expand the pre-existing Pacific Northwest American Indian/Alaska Native Medical School Applicant Workshop, which helps the region’s Native students prepare to apply for medical school.

Finally, the four partners also will encourage Native youth and adolescents to pursue medical careers through targeted digital and social media outreach, as well as hands-on health profession enrichment activities. Native youth can text the keyword HEALER to 97779 to receive weekly text messages that include role-model videos, resources, tips and ideas to help them navigate the steps involved in becoming a healer.