Since the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, we have been changing our daily lives to protect the highest-risk populations: older adults and people with chronic medical conditions. We are asked to follow sensible guidelines like social distancing and thorough hand-washing. Although one may have a gut-reaction to put their own safety at the forefront during these times of crisis, it is essential that we are taking the necessary steps to protect populations with additional vulnerabilities – rural tribal communities.
With the announcement that COVID-19 reached the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Confederation on March 9, 2020, it was evident the virus would not stay confined to urban and metropolitan centers like some previously predicted. The experience in China with COVID-19 clearly reflects the vulnerability of rural communities because many people travel routinely from urban to rural. Experts who conducted an epidemiological study in Hubei province, the initial epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, noted in their report: “…most public medical resources are concentrated in cities but are relatively scarce in rural areas. Therefore, prevention and treatment of 2019-nCoV in rural areas will be more challenging if new phases of the epidemic emerge.”
In the 1970s, Jean Whitehorse, a member of the Navajo Nation, went to a hospital in New Mexico for acute appendicitis. Years later, she found out the procedure performed was not just an appendectomy – she had been sterilized via tubal ligation. Around the same time, a Northern Cheyenne woman was told by a doctor that a hysterectomy would cure her headaches. After the procedure, her headaches persisted. Later, she found out a brain tumor was causing her pain, not a uterine problem. Like Whitehorse and the Northern Cheyenne woman, thousands of Native American women have suffered irreversible changes to their bodies and psychological trauma that continues to this day. Most medical providers are unaware of our own profession’s role in implementing these racists policies that have direct links to the Eugenics movement.
Eugenics was a “movement that is aimed at improving the genetic composition of the human race” through breeding. From its origin in 1883, eugenics became the driving rationale behind using sterilization as a tool to breed out unwanted members of society in the United States. With the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell permitting eugenic sterilization, 32 states followed suit and passed eugenic-sterilization laws. Although the outward use of sterilization declined after World War II because of its association with Nazi practices, sterilization rates in poor communities of color remained high throughout the United States.
I recently took care of Rosaria, a cheerful 60-year-old woman who came in for chronic joint pain. She grew up in rural Mexico, but came to the US thirty years ago to work in the strawberry fields of California. After examining her, I recommended a few blood tests and x-rays as next steps. “Lo siento pero no voy a tener seguro hasta el primavera — Sorry but I won’t have insurance again until the Spring.” Rosaria, who is a seasonal farmworker, told me she only gets access to health care during the strawberry season. Her medical care will have to wait, and in the meantime, her joints continue to deteriorate.
Migrant and seasonal agricultural workers (MSAW) are people who work “temporarily or seasonally in farm fields, orchards, canneries, plant nurseries, fish/seafood packing plants, and more.” MSAW are more than temporary laborers, though— they are individuals and families who have time and time again helped the US in its greatest time of need. During WWI, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1917 because of the extreme shortage of US workers. This allowed farmers to bring about 73,000 Mexican workers into the US. During WWII, the US once again called upon Mexican laborers to fill the vacancies in the US workforce under the Bracero Program in 1943. Over the 23 years the Bracero Program was in place, the US employed 4.6 million Mexican laborers. Despite the US being indebted to the Mexican laborers, who helped the economy from collapsing in the gravest of times, the US deported 400,000 Mexican immigrants and Mexican-American citizens during the Great Depression.
In the last fifteen years, we have witnessed dozens of natural disasters affecting our most vulnerable patients, from post-hurricane victims in Haiti to drought and famine refugees in Malawi. The vast majority of these patients suffered from acute on chronic disasters, culminating in life-threatening medical illnesses. Yet, during the course of providing clinical care and comfort, we rarely, if ever, pointed to climate change as the root cause of their conditions. The evidence for climate change is not new, but the movement for climate justice is now emerging on a large scale, and clinicians should play an active role.
Let’s be clear: there is no such thing as an “equal opportunity”
disaster. Yes, climate change poses an existential threat to us all, but not on
equal terms. When nature strikes, it has always been the poor and historically
underserved who are most vulnerable to its wrath. Hurricane Katrina provides an
example of how natural disasters target their victims along racial and
socioeconomic lines even in the wealthiest nations. Writes TalkPoverty.org, “A black homeowner in New Orleans was more than three times as
likely to have been flooded as a white homeowner. That wasn’t due to bad luck;
because of racially discriminatory housing practices, the high-ground was taken
by the time banks started loaning money to African Americans who wanted to buy
a home.” Throughout the world, historically marginalized communities have been
pushed to overcrowded, poorly-built, and unsanitary neighborhoods where natural
disasters invoke much greater harm.
In the 2020 Summer Olympics, we will undoubtedly see large, red circles down the arms and backs of many Olympians. These spots are a side-effect of cupping, a treatment originating from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to reduce pain. TCM is a globally used Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), but it still battles its critics who think it is only a belief system, rather than a legitimate medical practice. Even so, the usage of TCM continues to grow. This led the National Institute of Health (NIH) to sponsor a meeting in 1997 to determine the efficacy of acupuncture, paving the way in CAM research. Today, there are now over 50 schools dedicated to teaching Chinese acupuncture in the US under the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine.
While TCM has seen immense growth and integration around the globe throughout the last twenty years, other forms of CAM continue to struggle for acceptance in the U.S. In this article we will focus on Native American/Indigenous traditional medical practices. Indigenous and non-Indigenous patients should not have to choose between traditional and allopathic medicine, but rather have them working harmoniously from prevention to diagnosis to treatment plan.
It was not until August of 1978 that federally recognized tribal members were officially able to openly practice their Indigenous traditional medicine (the knowledge and practices of Indigenous people that prevent or eliminate physical, mental and social diseases) when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) was passed. Prior to 1978, the federal government’s Department of Interior could convict a medicine man to a minimum of 10 days in prison if he encouraged others to follow traditional practices.
It is difficult to comprehend that tribes throughout the U.S. were only given the ability to openly exercise their medicinal practices 41 years ago when the “healing traditions of indigenous Native Americans have been practiced on this continent for 12,000 years ago and possibly for more than 40,000 years.”
Since the passage of AIRFA, many tribally run clinics and hospitals are finding ways to incorporate Indigenous traditional healing into their treatment plans, when requested by patients.
For over a month, Kānaka ‘Ōiwi (Native Hawaiian)
elders and community members have stood in solidarity at Maunakea in Hawai’i.
They seek to protect their land, sovereignty, and culture from those who want
to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Maunakea. Maunakea holds both cultural
and spiritual meaning to the Kānaka ‘Ōiwi. Unfortunately, many astrophysicists
and TMT investors see Maunakea primarily as a means to make scientific
discoveries. The frequent narrative where Indigenous people need to defend the
value of their traditional knowledge, beliefs and culture to
Western scientists is a very familiar story that is often replicated in
healthcare, both at home in the U.S., and abroad.
Traditional medicine, as defined by the World Health Organization, is the “knowledge, skills and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures, used in the maintenance of health and in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness”. Looking at this definition, it is clear that traditional medicine practiced by Indigenous people has equivalent goals to modern Western medicine. Therefore, are we harming our patients when we do not incorporate traditional approaches harmoniously to the practice of healing, and instead value Western medicine over traditional medicine?
The arguments for putting TMT on Maunakea follow a similar reflex to reject knowledge that is different from our own. Thankfully, letters and activism rallying against the construction of TMT on Maunakea, from both Indigenous communities and scientists, are highlighting how Indigenous people are not anti-Western science. In fact, they are beginning to envision how collaboration between Traditional Knowledge and Western science is possible, and potentially even synergistic. Similarly, Western healthcare, too, must foster an approach that centers Traditional Knowledge for Indigenous communities.
How can current and future healthcare providers
promote the value of both Traditional Knowledge and Western science, and thus
promote trust and collaboration between providers and patients?
“Kijan ou ye? How are you?” I asked my patient, a fifty-five year-old Haitian-American woman living in Dorchester, Massachusetts. It was 2008. I had been her primary care doctor for two years and was working with her to reduce her blood pressure and cholesterol levels. “Papi mal dok– I’m doing ok doc.” We talked for 15 minutes, reviewed her vital signs and medications, and made a plan. I then electronically transmitted a new prescription to her pharmacy. The encounter was like thousands of others I’d had as a physician, except for one key difference– I was in Rwanda, 7,000 miles away from Dorchester and 6 hours ahead of the East Coast time zone.
At the time, I knew that telemedicine – the practice of providing healthcare without the provider being physically present with the patient – was a resourceful means of working with rural populations that have limited access to healthcare. However, I had no idea that just ten years down the road, many health professionals and policymakers would laud the emerging tech field as the answer to inaccessible healthcare for rural communities. While I’m aware of telemedicine’s promising benefits, I’m certain that it cannot, on its own, solve the most pressing issues that continue to afflict the rural poor and underserved.
Ever since the invention of the telephone, providers have been practicing telemedicine. However, not until the advent of advanced technologies such as high-speed internet, smartphones, and remote-controlled robotic surgery, has the field of telemedicine started to beg the question: “Do we still need in-person interactions between patient and doctor to provide high quality healthcare?” This question is particularly important for patients who live in rural areas, where a chronic shortage of providers has existed for decades.
Fifteen years ago, as a medical student, I learned a
terrifying lesson about blindly using race-based medicine. I was taking care of
Mr. Smith, a thin man in his late 60s, who entered the hospital with severe
back pain and a fever. As the student on the hospital team, I spent over an
hour interviewing him, asking relevant questions about his medical and social history,
the medications he took, and the details of his symptoms. I learned Mr. Smith
was a veteran who ran into tough times that left him chronically homeless,
uninsured, and suffering from hypertension and diabetes. I performed a complete
physical exam, paying particularly close attention to his back. Upon reviewing
his blood tests and kidney function, I read the computer’s report: “normal.”
I felt confident as I presented Mr. Smith’s treatment plan
to my attending physician: I recommended a CT scan, ibuprofen for pain, blood
pressure lowering medication, and an antibiotic. My attending listened quietly,
reviewed the labs herself, and then firmly corrected every aspect of my
treatment proposal. “His kidney function is NOT
normal. What you want to do for him can further damage his kidneys. The lab
reported his creatinine as ‘normal’ because it has an algorithm that makes
faulty assumptions based on race.” Mr. Smith, according to the medical record,
was African American.
I almost harmed Mr. Smith because I hadn’t realized that the exact same creatinine level (the key metric for kidney function) yields two different reports based on whether you’re African American or not. The logic goes that because black people supposedly have higher muscle mass on average, healthy creatinine levels for those who check the “black” box is different from those who check other boxes. Physicians around the country continue to rely on this metric even when the black patient is thin, like Mr. Smith. This example of race-based creatinine levels to determine kidney function is a symptom of race-based medicine in general: (poorly defined) racial categories are often used as proxies to explain discrepancies in health outcomes by race, which is a potentially dangerous analysis. Mr. Smith’s case forced me to consider why race-based medicine is problematic and where our attention as healthcare providers should be directed instead.
What is certain is that health inequities persist along racial lines. African Americans and Hispanics have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease than other groups (Figure 1). American Indians and Alaskan Natives are 2.1 times as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes as white individuals and the prevalence of obesity in this population is higher than any other group. While it would be convenient to attribute these disparities to genetic difference, this is simply not the case.
A friend of mine told me the other day, “We’ve seen our insured patient population go from 15% to 70% in the few years since Obamacare.” As a primary care physician in the Midwest, he’s worked for years in an inner-city clinic that serves a poor community, many of whom also suffer from mental illness. Before the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the clinic constantly struggled to stay afloat financially. Too often patients would be sent to an emergency room because the clinic couldn’t afford to provide some of the simplest medical tests, like an x-ray. Now, with most of his patients insured through the Medicaid expansion program, the clinic has beefed up its staffing and ancillary services, allowing them to provide better preventive care, and in turn, reduce costly ER visits.
From the time Medicaid was established in 1965 as the country’s first federally-funded health insurance plan for low-income individuals, state governments have only been required to cover the poorest of their citizens. Before the ACA, some 47 million Americans were uninsured because their incomes exceeded state-determined benchmarks for Medicaid eligibility and they earned far too little to buy insurance through the private marketplace.
The ACA reduced the number of uninsured Americans by mandating that states increase their income requirement for Medicaid to 138% of the federal poverty line (about $1,330 per month for a single individual), and promising that the federal government would cover the cost to do so. However, in a 2012 decision, the Supreme Court left it to the states to decide if they wanted to increase their Medicaid eligibility. If they agreed to adopt Medicaid expansion, the federal government offered to cover 100% of the increased cost in 2014 and 90% by 2021.
Most will be surprised to learn that American Indians and Alaska Natives represent the only populations in the United States with a legal birthright to health care. Even though Article 25 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including…medical care and necessary social services,” U.S. federal policy only guarantees this human right to enrolled tribal members. The source of this juridical entitlement is what the United States Supreme Court has defined as the federal trust responsibility.
Between 1787 and 1871, the United States signed nearly 400 treaties with Indian tribes, in which, for the exchange of millions of acres of tribal land, the U.S. government promised in perpetuity to respect their sovereignty and provide benefits, including housing, education, and healthcare. Argued in March 1983, United States v. Mitchell is the most recent Supreme Court case establishing this principle as a matter of law. This week marks the 36-year-anniversary of that seminal case, providing us the opportunity to discuss the federal government’s failure to adequately fund the healthcare institutions that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives despite its legal responsibility to do so.
The current life expectancy for American Indians and Alaska Natives is 73 years, 5.5 years less than that of the general population. American Indians die at higher rates from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, and kidney disease. When we consider why Native communities suffer from preventable and treatable diseases at disproportionate frequencies, we must first evaluate the inequity in Congressional funding for Indian Health Services (IHS), the national agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that is responsible for providing comprehensive healthcare to the country’s enrolled American Indians and Alaska Natives.