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'Long overdue': New Native health group aims to hire more doctors for tribal communities

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Posted at 6:34 PM, Mar 05, 2024

CROW AGENCY — According to the Indian Health Service, the mortality rate for American Indians is 33% higher than the overall U.S. death rate of all other races. It's an issue that's been on tribal leader's minds for years, and now a collaboration on the national level is in the works to address the lack of doctors on and around reservations.

Crow community members say the effort is long overdue, as finding health care is a struggle in rural areas for several reasons.

“People have a hard time getting into appointments, especially the lack of actual doctors as opposed to physician assistants and nurse practitioners,” said Crow native and current Hardin resident, Loretta Stewart Thomas, on Tuesday.

A shortage of doctors and a lack of transportation and income are a few causes of the problem.

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Loretta Stewart Thomas

“I have seen people that will do raffles and stuff, trying to raise funds, to fund their trips out [to other hospitals],” Thomas said.

Thomas has lived the struggle of finding immediate health care services around the reservation.

“I’ve had relatives that have went back, went back, went back [to Indian Health Service]. Down the road, they find out they have cancer. That happened to my mom, she passed away a week after her first chemo,” said Thomas.

She even has to travel to Billings for her rheumatoid arthritis.

“And at one time, they used to bring them in once a month. But then the waiting list was so long, you were lucky if you got in here,” Thomas added.

It affects everyone, from community members to tribal leaders.

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Sam DeCrane

“I have glaucoma so I have to see an eye specialist. I have to go to Rapid City (South Dakota) to see an actual specialist,” said Sam DeCrane, the Crow Tribal Health Department planner.

It's why the American Indian Medical Education Strategies Alliance was formed.

“I think that it’s long overdue,” said DeCrane.

Rocky Vista University in Billings is one of the 24 organizations that's a part of the alliance focused on addressing the physician shortage in tribal communities. The alliance hopes to do so by improving staffing at tribal health facilities.

DeCrane, however, believes that change begins right on the reservation by pushing the younger generation to pursue those fields.

“I’m a school board member and that really isn’t pushed. But it should be. But why isn’t it? I guess that’s something we need to ask ourselves,” added DeCrane.

The alliance is a first step that Thomas and DeCrane hope will bring much-needed change.