Native American Leaders and Experts Discuss Ways to Improve Community Health Outcomes

National summit highlights need for solutions that touch on range of economic, cultural, and societal factors

Native American Leaders and Experts Discuss Ways to Improve Community Health Outcomes
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Albuquerque, New Mexico, recently hosted the 10th annual National Tribal Public Health Summit.
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The recent National Tribal Public Health Summit highlighted the need to account for culture, community, environment, and other factors when considering ways to improve the health and well-being of Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

The three-day event in May in Albuquerque, New Mexico, drew more than 600 public health professionals, researchers, tribal leaders, and community-based service providers to discuss health promotion, disease prevention, public health policy, substance use prevention and treatment, environmental health, and emergency preparedness. 

Addressing the annual summit, the U.S. surgeon general, Vice Adm. Jerome Adams, acknowledged that government policymakers have historically focused on health care access and delivery, rather than on the social, economic, and environmental factors—including those linked to income and housing—that significantly influence people’s health.

Dr. Donald Warne, the associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion and director of the Indians Into Medicine Program at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences, said those working in tribal public health must consider the lasting impact of historical traumas such as the cultural assimilation of children from indigenous communities in boarding schools. Successfully addressing the challenges facing Native Americans and Alaska Natives requires a broad approach, Warne said.

“We must look at the impact of adverse adult experiences, like poverty, having a family member in prison, and inadequate housing,” he said, noting that effective solutions require more than good medical care. “We are not going to be able to prescribe our way out of this. It takes a much more comprehensive approach.”

Several summit discussions highlighted the importance of developing tailored approaches within indigenous communities that can take cultural priorities into account when assessing programs intended to improve health.

The Health Impact Project recently provided the Notah Begay III Foundation, a Native American nonprofit organization based in New Mexico, with a grant to develop and implement a health  evaluation framework to understand the connections between a broad range of locally driven policy changes and the health of youth in Zuni Pueblo.

The project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, encourages policymakers to include health considerations in decisions across multiple sectors, such as housing, transportation, and education. Research shows that the conditions in which people live, learn, work, and play influence their health, so the Health Impact Project emphasizes cross-sector partnerships to take action to improve public health.

Bethany Rogerson is a manager and Stefanie Carignan is an associate with the Health Impact Project.