THALAQWA – The push to train new physicians for jobs in rural communities continues at the University of Cherokee College of Osteopathic Medicine.
In a report to the CN Tribe Council on September 16, Dean Dr. Natasha Bray briefed leaders on the $40 million partnership between the tribe and Oklahoma State University.
“Our mission is really to serve rural and underserved communities,” Bray said. “We feel like we’re setting a school…in a rural community the capital of the Cherokee Nation really fulfills that mission. It allows us to train medical students where we need them in practice. We don’t necessarily need doctors in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. We need them in our rural communities. We need them to serve Residents who previously had limited access or had to travel long distances.”
The medical school’s inaugural class opened in Summer 2020, and will graduate in May 2024. There are currently three classes of over 50 students with 20% of the Native American population representing dozens of tribes. That includes 13 Cherokees, Bray said. 28% of students consider minorities underrepresented in medicine. In full capacity, the medical school will provide 200 students with all four years of medical education at the Tahlequah campus, which is accredited by the College of Osteopathic Accreditation Commission.
Nearly half of the students are from what are considered rural communities, according to Bray, who has served as interim dean since June 2021. She was formally appointed dean by the Oklahoma State University/Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical University Board of Regents on September 9. .
“We are the first tribal medical school in the United States,” she said. “This is an investment. It was an investment that came through your leadership to allow us to make a real difference in the people we train to become doctors, but also in where they train to become doctors.”
The 84,000-square-foot College of Osteopathic Medicine is located on the campus of the WW Hastings Outpatient Center in Tahlequah. At a ceremony in January 2021, Cherokee Nation officials and university leaders cut the ribbon on their $40 million venture, which has been in the works since 2018 when the Oklahoma State University Center for Health and Science and Cherokee Nation announced that they would create their first tribal affiliate. The medical school is on tribal grounds in the entire country.
Bray cited a quote from President Chuck Hoskin Jr. who described the partnership as delivering high-quality healthcare by “allowing us to educate a new generation of medical professionals to serve our communities for years to come.”
Bray said the educational environment is structured to create primary care physicians.
“We want to train internal medicine doctors, family medicine doctors and pediatricians because we know that’s what our workforce needs,” Bray said. “We want to give them the skills to help them succeed. Now we hope that this is with us, and this is the investment that we want to make. But if it is not with us, we still need them to get that training and come back and deliver healthcare via booking because we know we need urgently to the doctors.”
From a primary care standpoint, she added, “we’re short on nearly 800 physicians today.”
“It’s getting worse because we see people cutting training hours and leaving training because they are tired after COVID,” she said. “So we want to make sure that we continue to support people who are turning to medicine and get them to the place where they will be happy and successful, whatever that takes.”
An estimated $1.7 million has been raised from Cherokee Nation, Chickasaw Nation, and 17 private scholarship donors.
A $3.5 million grant was recently awarded to The Ohio State University Center for the Health Sciences in Tulsa to fund new programs and advance existing efforts to recruit and prepare Native American undergraduate students for medical school.
“Less than 0.2 percent of physicians are Native American in the United States, and even fewer in STEM jobs,” Kent Smith, associate dean of the American Indian Office of Medicine and Science at The Ohio State University-College of Health Sciences, said in a press release. “. “If students can see someone like them in medicine and a path for themselves, they can create a vision for themselves in the future.”
The scholarship was provided by the Department of Health Resources and Services and will also fund scholarships and resources for indigenous medical students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty.