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Educational program helps Native Americans enter health careers

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Verrica Livingston knows the exact moment she decided to go into the medical field.

She and her mother took her 7-year-old brother, Justin, to the Indian Health Services hospital in Gallup, N.M., for treatment, but were turned away because of a shortage of doctors. There had been a traffic accident, and the scant staff had to allocate their resources to the injured. The hospital urged Livingston's mother to take Justin home and come back the next day, but she refused.

They waited at the hospital for about four hours before a doctor was available to examine Justin. Once the doctor diagnosed him with pneumonia, he was finally admitted to the hospital, where he remained for about two days.

``Sick kids shouldn't be turned away,'' said Livingston, a 17-year-old Navajo who lives on the Twin Lakes reservation in New Mexico.

A year later, Livingston is taking the first step toward becoming a pediatrician as one of 18 American Indian students from across the United States attending the Headlands Indian Health Career Program at the University of Oklahoma this summer. The program is an intense eight-week curriculum designed to give American Indians entering college a leg up in math and science courses so they will be more apt to choose a health profession and succeed in it.

``We change their lives,'' Headlands director Tom Hardy said. ``Most of the students who have ended up in a health career say they couldn't have done it without this program.''

Less than 1 percent of current U.S. medical school students are American Indians, said Darrel Pratt, chief of health professions support for Indian Health Services, the principal federal health care provider for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

According to the American Medical Association, the United States had only 503 American Indian physicians in 2003, making up 0.06 percent of the country's more than 871,000 physicians. Studies show that minority physicians are more likely to return to their communities and provide care for minority and underserved populations, according to the AMA. Of the 6,600 health professionals working for Indian Health Services last year, 37 percent were American Indians.

``You want to get them back serving other native communities,'' said Hazel Lonewolf, Headlands resident adviser. ``I think that's the goal of the program.''

The lack of American Indians in the medical field is due to educational factors, Hardy said. Many American Indians live on reservations, where a large number of schools are underfunded, have inadequate facilities and are unable to recruit adequate math and science teachers at the high-school level, officials said.

As a result, American Indian students who try to pursue a health career in college are often ill-prepared for the intense math and science courses required and switch to another field of study or drop out altogether, Hardy said.

Headlands participants spend six to eight hours every weekday in math and science-oriented classes such as chemistry, calculus, physics and biology, and another four hours doing homework at night. Their progress is measured by the improvements students make on a test given at the beginning and end of the program, Hardy said.

``They're actually doing this on their own volition,'' Lonewolf said. ``Just by being here they're wanting to better their college career and future in health profession. The ones that are more driven are the ones that seek out these programs.''

Headlands has graduated over 600 participants since it began 30 years ago, and 50 percent are currently in the medical field or pursuing medical opportunities, Hardy said. Another 25 percent have gone on to college but chose to study something other than medicine.

The program, funded by the National Institutes of Health, pays all expenses for the students. In addition, they receive a $500 stipend.

Four counselors preside over the students and also act as tutors and resident advisers. The students stay in a dormitory on the university's Norman campus. Hardy said between 50 and 75 applicants compete for 17 spots each year. Additional funding opened three more spots this year, but two applicants dropped out at the last minute, Hardy said. Students are chosen based on their expressed plans to enter health sciences, their academic performance in science and mathematics and their aptitude for pursuing a health career.

Livingston said she felt lost in the Headlands classes at first because she didn't get adequate math and science instruction at her reservation school. By the middle of the fourth week, however, Livingston was beginning to feel confident about entering college at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque this fall.

``(Headlands) has opened me up to different things,'' she said. ``I've learned a lot more and my study habits have improved. I feel like I'm ready for college.''
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