The number of Native American students entering medical school in the United States has been dropping almost steadily in recent years. For Dr. Nicole Stern, a 1998 graduate of the UA College of Medicine and president of the Association of American Indian Physicians, reversing that trend is priority No. 1.
"There are a lot of reasons why we aren't seeing more American Indian and Alaska Native students enrolling in medical school," said Stern, a Mescalero Apache who was sworn in last August as president of the Association of American Indian Physicians, or AAIP. "We are making a lot of efforts across the country to increase the numbers."
The Association of American Medical Colleges, or AAMC, reports that in 2008, 58 American Indian and Alaska Native students enrolled in medical school – a number that dropped to 41 three years later. When including American Indian and Alaska Native students who report more than one ethnic category, the AAMC counted 202 entering medical school in 2004, dropping to 184 last year.
Stern's father is Jewish and a neurologist with the UA College of Medicine. Her mother is a Mescalero Apache. Neither parent pushed her to become a doctor. But they raised her to believe she could do whatever she wanted with her life.
"I went into medicine so I could do what I can to serve my people in the best way possible," Stern said.
Her parents' support and encouragement were vital to her success in college and beyond, Stern said. But for many Native students, who grow up in communities with high poverty rates and low rates of high-school graduation, additional support is critical.
Unfortunately, grants for programs to encourage middle and high school students' interest in the health professions are increasingly competitive and harder to obtain. And while the cost of medical school keeps increasing, the availability of scholarships is not.
Also, Stern said, "Cuts in funding for public education may mean that students are not getting as good an education to prepare them for college."
The AAIP's National Native American Youth Initiative brings students between their junior and senior years of high school together each summer at a national conference, which took place this year from June 22-30 at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Airfare, lodging and meals are covered for selected students. The curriculum is designed to help students prepare for careers in health and biomedical research.
The AAIP also aids college students who want to apply to medical school, offering them workshops on the application process and how to prepare for interviews, and other topics.
"We need as an organization to get more prominence across the country," she said, noting that, out of about 2,600 self-identified American Indian and Alaska Native physicians in the U.S., less than 400 belong to the AAIP.
"We need more role models, to help mentor these younger students," she said. "And we want to retain the students we get into medical school. We hope to get more of them interested in academic medicine."
After medical school, Stern completed her residency in internal medicine at the UA, and then went to the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center for a fellowship in primary care sports medicine. Her fellowship research focused on the age at which urban American Indian children develop obesity. She was surprised to find that boys were likely to become obese at age 2, much earlier than girls. Tackling childhood obesity is still one of her top priorities.
Stern returned to the UA to work in student health until 2009, prior to joining the UA College of Medicine faculty as an assistant professor of medicine in 2010. On Oct. 1, 2012, she joined the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she works as a staff physician in student health and as team physician for the UCSB Department of Intercollegiate Athletics.
When her term as president of the Association of American Indian Physicians ends in August, Stern will continue to focus on the association’s goal to encourage more American Indian and Alaska Native students to pursue careers in medicine.
"We've got a lot of areas that we need to focus on, but one of AAIP's primary goals is to support and encourage native students to consider careers in biomedical research and in the health professions," Stern said. "I am hopeful that we can accomplish our goal through the continued efforts of our AAIP members who provide critical mentorship and guidance at our conferences, workshops and throughout the year on a one-on-one basis. Success will likely only come with increasing our numbers, thus gaining a presence in the professional workforce that will allow us to be successful in our overarching goal of improving the health of American Indian and Alaska Native people in this country."