Campus & Community

Harvard, Indian Health Service forge partnership

3 min read

Will work to improve American Indian health, wellness

Provost Steven E. Hyman of Harvard University and Charles W. Grim, assistant surgeon general and director of the Indian Health Service (IHS), have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to identify areas of collaboration to improve the health and wellness of American Indian and Alaska Native people and communities. The signing took place Feb. 21 in historic Massachusetts Hall, near the site of the Harvard Indian College, which was built in 1655.

The MOU is the first of its kind to focus on American Indian health issues between the academic institution of Harvard and the IHS, an agency in the Department of Health and Human Services. Hyman signed the MOU on behalf of the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP), one of 14 University-wide interfaculty initiatives of the Office of the Provost.

The mission of HUNAP is to bring together Native American students and interested individuals from the Harvard community for the purpose of advancing the well-being of indigenous peoples through self-determination, academic achievement, and community service. Through its Native Health Program, HUNAP supports research, outreach, leadership education, and teaching and curriculum development in health care and health policy directed toward improving American Indian and Alaska Native health.

“Improving our understanding of health disparities between Native American and non-Native communities in the U.S. is one of the terribly pressing needs in the fields of health care and health policy,” said Provost Hyman. “Harvard and the IHS together have the capacity to study this problem and to effect positive change. I’m very pleased that the IHS and the Harvard Native American Program have entered into this partnership.”

Grim added, “It is clear that health disparities experienced by American Indians and Alaska Natives cannot be addressed solely through the provision of health care services. … The future success of Indian health care requires coordinated intervention of health care services, educational systems, and economic development programs.”

Reflecting on the significance of the MOU, Dennis Norman, faculty chair of the Native Health Program at HUNAP, stated, “This is a great opportunity for synergy between Harvard’s educational mission and IHS’ mission to assist and collaborate in raising the physical, mental, social and spiritual health of American Indian and Alaska Native people.”

Comparisons of the general health status between Indian people and the rest of the U.S. population reveal that a 40 percent increase of IHS funding is needed in Indian country. Complicating the situation are the types of contemporary health problems confronting American Indian and Alaska Native communities. Death rates for tuberculosis, alcoholism, diabetes, accidents, suicide, and homicide, among others, are also significantly higher for Indians compared with the U.S. general population. Additionally, American Indian and Alaska Native death rates for unintentional injuries and motor vehicle crashes are two and half to three times higher than the national rates, while suicide and homicide rates are nearly twice as high in the Indian population.

“Although the statistics are disheartening, we can learn a lot from those tribal nations and communities who have implemented innovative and effective solutions to health care service and education,” said Norman. “The Native Health Program will engage undergraduate and graduate students in teaching, research, and outreach to promote understanding and interest in these important communities. We also hope to contribute to the pipeline effort and train more Native American as well as non-Native students to become practitioners, researchers, and leaders in American Indian health.”