Oklahoma State University and the Cherokee Nation are changing the way America trains doctors.
Close to patients, close to family, close to community and close to home - that's the difference the new medical school called Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation will make in rural Oklahoma.
The new medical school will be America's first tribally affiliated medical school and will open in 2020, in the heart of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah. The new medical school is on track to train up to 50 new physicians a year, a number that will have a major impact on the current physician shortage that is plaguing rural Oklahoma.
The medical school addresses two key problems. First, 76 out of Oklahoma's 77 counties are Health Professional Shortage Areas. All 14 counties that make up the Cherokee Nation's jurisdictional area are suffering under that shortage. Second, Native American physicians make up only 0.2 percent of the doctors in America. The OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine in Tulsa trains a much higher percentage of Native American physicians, topping the country at a training level of 16 percent. More physicians in Indian Country and more Native Americans in medical school is a win-win.
The new medical school is accredited by the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation and is an additional location of the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine in Tulsa. This additional location and increased class size have been approved by the OSU A&M Board of Regents and the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education
There are communities in Oklahoma that are desperate for doctors and better medical care. Study after study shows lack of health care professionals impact rural health and more physicians improve patient outcomes and lower deaths. We must bring more doctors to these communities to tear down the barriers of distance, availability of transportation, travel costs and the inability to take time off work to seek out-of-town care. In addition, this partnership will yield a unique research opportunity by exploring health issues specifically affecting Native American populations: data analytics, population health, precision medicine and epigenetics.
Providing superior health care is a top priority for the Cherokee Nation and Oklahoma State University. The Cherokee Nation already operates the largest tribal health system in the country with eight ambulatory health centers, a hospital and a 469,000-square-foot outpatient health facility under construction, set to open in 2019. However, recruiting physicians to practice in northeast Oklahoma continues to be a perennial challenge.
The mission to provide care for people in rural Oklahoma and underserved areas of the state is a vital intersection point between Oklahoma State University and the Cherokee Nation. Our shared vision is to recruit students from rural Oklahoma, educate and train them in rural Oklahoma and plan for them to practice medicine ultimately in rural Oklahoma. We believe this innovative partnership will lead the nation as a new model of care and save lives close to home.
Bill John Baker is principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and Kayse Shrum is president of Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences. Dr. Kayse Shrum contributed to this article.