Native American Heritage Month 2013

Nov. 7, 2013 College News - Native American Heritage Month is honored annually in November in the United States to pay tribute to the rich ancestry and heritage of Native Americans (American Indians). It is a perfect time to highlight some of the programs the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) has in place to address health problems that impact Native Americans disproportionately.

Some of these health problems include access to care, heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries (accidents), diabetes and stroke. Native Americans also have a high prevalence and risk factors for mental health and suicide, obesity, substance abuse, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), teenage pregnancy, liver disease and hepatitis.

The Institute for Health and Society is collaborating with the Great Lakes Native American Research Center for Health to establish health research initiatives that reduce disparities and build tribal health sciences capabilities.  The research center, a component of the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, Inc., is located in Lac Du Flambeau, Wis.

As part of these efforts, programs have been developed to provide American Indian high school and undergraduate students opportunities to learn more about careers in health care and the health sciences. Since 2003, as a result of these efforts, 130 American Indian students have participated in internships in these fields, and several hundred high school students have participated in field trips to places like Discovery World.

Two MCW faculty are currently conducting research projects through the Great Lakes Native American Research Center for Health to help reduce health disparities. Andrew Pelech, MD, Professor of Pediatrics (Cardiology), is studying birth outcomes of American Indians, and Matthew Dellinger, PhD, Research Specialist in the Institute for Health and Society, is studying contaminants in fish.

Dr. Dellinger serves as Scientific Coordinator for these Great Lakes Native American Research Center for Health projects and has been actively involved in building the program for more than four years. Earnestine Willis, MD, MPH, Kellner Professor in Pediatrics and Director of the College’s Center for the Advancement of Underserved Children, is a member of the Center’s external advisory committee and will chair the committee this coming year.  Under her leadership, Dr. Dellinger hopes to grow MCW’s involvement in these projects.

Another program the College has in place is a Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program-funded partnership with the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to build the capacity of Wisconsin's American Indian communities to improve cancer prevention and the health and quality of life of cancer patients and survivors. Cancer is the second leading cause of death among American Indians over the age of 45. Moreover, American Indians continue to have one of the poorest survival rates from all cancers combined. The project, Fighting Cancer in Wisconsin’s American Indian Communities, has three key aims: to assess the Red Cliff community’s knowledge and communications about cancer; to develop a reciprocal reporting process for the Red Cliff health clinic and the Wisconsin Cancer Reporting System; and to train local staff to implement the reporting process.

The project seeks to empower tribal communities to accurately identify which cancers impact their community the most, how many new cases of specific cancers they might see per year, and track how those numbers are changing over time. As a community-based participatory research project, tribal members are participants and decision makers in every step of the project. The goal is to develop a strong and sustainable partnership that will benefit American Indian communities in Wisconsin.

Elaine M. Drew, PhD, Assistant Professor of Family and Community Medicine, and J. Frank Wilson, MD, Chairman and Bernard & Miriam Peck Family Professor of Radiation Oncology, are the academic partners from the Medical College of Wisconsin. Community partners include the Red Cliff Community Health Center, the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Epidemiology Center, the Wisconsin Cancer Reporting System, the Spirit of Eagles - University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center, and the Wisconsin Cancer Council.