- Global Health Careers:Serving the Navajo Community
Gallup Indian Medical Center (GIMC) sits on a hilltop in Gallup, New Mexico, a town of 20,000 in the four corners region of the Southwestern United States. From its third story windows one can see the red cliffs of the nearby Navajo Nation, a 27,000 square mile reservation that reaches into Arizona, northern New Mexico, and the southern edges of Utah. It is a vast, rural landscape that houses more than 350,000 Navajos. For many on the reservation, healthcare is provided by Indian Health Service hospitals such as GIMC.
"Are you going to stay?" is a common question for new doctors at GIMC. The Navajo know that their geographic location, while beautiful and attractive to many young providers, will also be the reason they leave. It is hard for doctors to be away from their own homelands. Aging parents get sick, [End Page 86] educational opportunities arise, and children who need to be near extended family are born. But to the Navajo, the story of an individual provider is not so important or memorable. All they know is that providers come and go.
"Are you here to experiment on us?" is yet another question. Years of exploitation and efforts to destroy traditional ways and language have made many Navajo wary of healthcare providers, no matter how genuine their intentions. Many are so fearful of the hospital—they regard it as "the place to go die."
Yet despite this initial suspicion, the Navajo are welcoming people at heart, and tend to develop relationships of trust with their providers. Parents will begin to talk about their grief over a son that has committed suicide or a daughter who died from alcoholic cirrhosis. The elderly will tell you how they care for their five orphaned grandchildren while they can barely take care of their own diabetes. A carpenter tells you he has not worked in a year and feels worthless. An HIV-positive woman will tell you she has been sleeping in a dry river bed because she has no place to go. It quickly becomes apparent that as a physician you will be treating patients with enormous social challenges in addition to complex medical conditions.
The origins of the Federal Government's involvement in the healthcare of American Indians and Alaskan Natives (AI/ANs) in the 19th century arose out of both legal obligation and concern for self- preservation. Health services were promised to AI/ ANs in exchange for land, settlements, and agreements. In addition, infectious diseases endemic on reservations as a consequence of crowding and abject poverty, including smallpox and tuberculosis, were seen as a major public health concern. The responsibility of Native American health was first granted to the War Department, then to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and finally to the Public Health Service in 1955 under the heading of the IHS, or Indian Health Service (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2004; National Library of Medicine, 1994).
Since then, the IHS has had many successes. Vaccination rates have gone up, and rates of pneumonia and tuberculosis have gone down significantly. Maternal and infant mortality have declined, and life expectancy has increased (Indian Health Services, 1999). Nonetheless, these improvements remain overshadowed by glaring health disparities among AI/ANs across a broad spectrum of diseases, both communicable and non-communicable, acute and chronic. Native Americans experience higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease than the general United States population. They are also more likely to die from alcohol-related causes and in accidents. Life expectancy remains more than five years less than that of the general U.S. population (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2004; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000).
Underlying these health indicators is the continued impoverished status of most AI/ANs. In Navajo, almost half of the population lives below the poverty line. According to the Navajo Nation, the current unemployment rate is 42% (Navajo Nation Department of Economic Development, 2011). Many Navajo on the reservation do not have running water or electricity. They heat with wood, which they chop and haul themselves—regardless...