Health & Education

Empey working to increase number of Native physicians

12.30.2019 Dean Rhodes Tribal employees, Health & Wellness, Education
Tribal member Allison Empey is the deputy director of the Northwest Native American Center for Excellence at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. She is working to increase the number of Native Americans and Alaska Natives who pursue careers in the health care field. (Photo by Timothy J. Gonzalez/Smoke Signals)

By Dean Rhodes

Smoke Signals editor

For Native American patients, the chances that their doctor would be a Native American or Alaskan Native were never good, but over the last decade those chances have gotten worse.

According to statistics compiled by the Association of American Indian Physicians, the percentage of Native American and Alaskan Native students in medical school decreased from 0.39 percent in 2006-07 to 0.2 percent in 2017-18.

In 2016, there were only 935 Native registered nurse graduates nationwide, a slight decrease from earlier years.

To combat the declining number of Native Americans entering health care professions, the Northwest Native American Center for Excellence at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland was formed as a collaboration between the school, Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board and Portland State University.

Tribal member Allison Empey, who works at the Tribal health clinic part-time as a pediatrician, is the deputy director of the Center for Excellence, which is made possible through a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, OHSU School of Medicine and the support of all 43 Tribes in the Pacific Northwest.

“I applied for the deputy director role because I am interested in mentorship and I have a little bit of experience in post-baccalaureate pathways because I did a post-baccalaureate pathway at Georgetown,” Empey says.

The Center for Excellence created the Wy’east Post Baccalaureate Pathway, named after the traditional Multnomah name for Mount Hood. The pathway’s three major components seek to help Native American and Alaskan Native students prepare for the rigors of medical school both academically and professionally, as well as provide a culturally relevant learning experience.

The pathway started accepting students in fall 2018 with an enrollment of seven. Five students succeeded and were granted conditional acceptance into the OHSU School of Medicine. The other two students went on to pursue a master’s in public health and research health disparities, respectively.

“So they all stayed in health care, but five of them went on to the School of Medicine route,” Empey says.

This year, nine students are enrolled in the pathway, which does not charge tuition and offers an $840 monthly stipend.

The pathway targets students who have earned their bachelor’s degree and have applied to but not been accepted to a medical school or are missing a critical piece of educational experience, such as not passing the Medical College Admission Test.

Students receive six months of intense science and population health instruction, as well as being taught how to learn. They are then put through an intensive MCAT course, learning how to take the important test. In the spring, they must complete a research project.

“Kind of threaded throughout this curriculum is also a cultural component,” Empey says, such as a blanketing ceremony at the end of the year and basketry courses. “Throughout the course, we have an indigenous health and wellness curriculum where we focus on what it means to be well … the spiritual, physical, mental and emotional aspects.”

Once accepted into a School of Medicine, students must come up with funding or scholarships to pay for the four years of study.

Empey, 36, earned her bachelor’s degree from Stanford University in 2006 and attended medical school at the University of California San Francisco from 2009 to 2013. Her residency program was at Oregon Health & Science University from 2013 to 2016.

After her pediatrics residency program was complete, Empey was accepted to serve an additional year as a chief resident.

Currently, Empey works in the academic pediatrics field, which is when a doctor works at a university and has interests in scholarly work such as research, advocacy and medical education in addition to working with residents who treat patients. She also works with outpatients as well as patients in the OHSU newborn nursery.

After joining the Grand Ronde Health Committee in 2017, Empey met Health Services Executive Director Kelly Rowe, who mentioned the Tribe was looking for a pediatrician. Empey, who lives in Portland, visits Grand Ronde two days every other week and will soon start visiting on a weekly basis.

Empey says the importance of being a Native American physician caring for Native American patients strikes a chord with her when she visits the Tribal clinic for care for Grand Ronde children.

“It is just more meaningful for me to be at the Tribe,” Empey says. “I feel really connected to all of my different patients at the Tribal clinic. … Oftentimes we have a shared background. I maybe have more of an understanding of historical trauma and the current state of what it’s like in the Tribe.”

The Wy’east Post Baccalaureate Pathway has recently received additional Indian Health Service funding that will allow it to expand to Washington State University in Pullman and the University of California-Davis and operate through 2024. Empey says they also will re-apply for the current federal funding when it runs out. Applications open on April 1 and close May 30.

In addition, Spirit Mountain Community Fund, the Grand Ronde Tribe’s philanthropic entity, awarded $38,500 to the pathway to provide anatomy courses to students.

“American Indian and Alaska Native people face significant health disparities, which is further jeopardized by a shortage of health care professionals who come from these communities,” said Dr. Erik Brodt (Ojibwe), director of the Center for Excellence. “We aim to change that.”

“We need Native American and Alaskan Natives in every specialty out there and we need them in rural communities, in urban Native communities and also in academic centers too because we need representation there and mentors for our students as they go through the journey,” Empey says.

As a Grand Ronde Tribal member who is a doctor, Empey says she hopes she can be a role model for younger aspiring Native American and Alaskan Native medical school students. High school students who are interested in health care professions can shadow her and other doctors at the Tribal health clinic as part of the Tribal Health Scholars program, she adds.

“It is hard to imagine being something if you’ve never seen a Native American physician before,” Empey says. “The biggest thing is the center is here to support those interested in going into health care. … The opportunities exist and we are here to support you and I hope my being at the clinic inspires someone to dream ‘I can be a doctor’ because they can.”

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