- By Kelsey Turner
The Navajo Nation is working to expand its Indigenous healthcare workforce through an ongoing partnership with the University of California San Francisco’s Health Equity, Action & Leadership Initiative (HEAL).
HEAL is a two-year fellowship that supports healthcare workers dedicated to serving underserved communities. Since 2015, HEAL has served over 25,000 Navajo patients annually and supported 165 healthcare workers through its fellowship, according to a recent Navajo Nation press release. Over 60 Navajo health professionals have participated in the HEAL Initiative to date, and 20 physicians have taken permanent positions on the Navajo Nation following fellowship experience.
On Wednesday, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez met with Navajo Department of Health (NDOH) Executive Director Dr. Jill Jim and HEAL co-founder Dr. Sriram Shamasunder to discuss and strengthen the partnership.
“We need more Navajo professionals in the healthcare field,” Nez said in the press release. “We envision being able to take on a lot more responsibilities to embrace true self-governance through T’áá Hwó Ají Téego, self-determination, and empowering our healthcare workers is a major step in that direction.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, several HEAL team members went to the Navajo Nation to help frontline workers. “HEAL fellows have filled key vacancies in nine of the Navajo Nation’s hospitals and clinics, including a ‘solidarity team’ of 40 additional doctors and nurses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the press release states.
During Wednesday’s visit, Nez commended Shamasunder and former HEAL fellows Dr. Adriann Begay, Dr. Cristina Rivera Carpenter and Dr. Marla Yazzie for going “above and beyond” the healthcare services they provide to the Navajo people.
“Through the HEAL program, I have been empowered to take care of my people,” Yazzie said in the press release. “I feel very strongly that the caliber of people the program brings into our facilities is tremendous.” Yazzie also noted that the group is part of a very small number of Indigenous physicians in the U.S.—only 0.4% of the nation’s active physician workforce self-identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, according to a 2018 American Medical Association Council on Medical Education report.
The HEAL program currently has 149 fellows and will be seeking additional funding to increase the 1-percent demographic of American Indian and Alaska Native medical school students, the press release says. Individuals interested in becoming a HEAL Fellow can visit the UCSF website at https://healinitiative.org for more information.
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