Alaska Natives Have Much to Teach the Nation About Health Care
This op-ed originally appeared on the Alaska Dispatch News on August, 27, 2017.
One of the things everyone seems to tell you about Alaska is that, no matter how beautiful you have heard it is, visiting the state will always exceed your expectations.
Earlier this month, I had the privilege to visit Alaska not as a tourist but as the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and found the state exceeds expectations beyond just its natural beauty — Alaskans are also exceptional in how they care for one another.
HHS is closely involved with Alaska Native communities through our government-to-government relationship, and we had been told to expect to be impressed with how Natives overcome the unique challenges they face in health care and human services. What we saw exceeded those high expectations.
The Native people, in partnership with HHS's Indian Health Service, have done a remarkable job of providing high quality care to tribal communities across the state. In Alaska, we witnessed a spirit of caring for the whole person and a determination to put patients at the center that systems across our country would do well to emulate.
One highlight of our trip was meeting with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage, where we heard from four members of the commission and 15 tribal leaders from across the state.
They came from as far as the Maniilaq Health Center in Kotzebue and the Norton Sound Health Corp. in Nome. Together, they offered a fascinating picture of how the Native health system has succeeded under tribal self-governance.
But it was meeting patients and providers firsthand that really brought home the special nature of this system. At the Alaska Native Medical Center, we met an expectant mother with a potentially high-risk pregnancy who had traveled hundreds of miles to receive the top-quality care offered there.
It was an inspiring example of what the system is capable of doing for those living in extremely remote Alaska Native villages.
We also visited the Anchorage Native Primary Care Center, which takes a unique approach to providing care for the whole person.
Those of us who have gone through a complicated medical issue know how frustrating it can be to have to travel to see various providers, even if it's just within the hospital. At the Primary Care Center, caregivers come to the patient —a wonderful representation of how the Native system puts patients at its center.
The center also puts a special emphasis on integrating mental and physical health. This approach, in part inspired by Native spiritual traditions, has been shown to provide significantly better health outcomes, often at lower cost.
For all the uniqueness of the Alaska Native health care system, it shares some challenges with the rest of the country.
The three clinical priorities we have identified for HHS — the opioid crisis, childhood obesity and serious mental illness — know no boundaries. They are challenges for Alaska Native communities just as they are for urban, suburban and rural areas in the Lower 48.
But solving them does require responses grounded in local values and needs, as we saw at the Ernie Turner Treatment Center in Anchorage, which has integrated Alaska Native values into its work.
In Alaska, we also heard about some of the same frustrations with burdens the federal government imposes on doctors, nurses and other health care providers that we have heard about all across the country. We at HHS are committed to reviewing these burdens and alleviating them wherever possible, so providers have the time and flexibility to offer the care their patients need.
Learning more about the special government-to-government relationship between the federal government and tribal nations has been a special part of my time so far at HHS.
The mission of the IHS — "to raise the physical, mental, social, and spiritual health of American Indians and Alaska Natives to the highest level"— is a lofty one. Fulfilling it requires authentic devotion to traditional values and patients' needs, and it was a joy to see that spirit in action in Alaska.
Tom Price is secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.