Alaska is a vast state—larger than Texas, Montana, and California combined. It is also home to the highest percentage of American Indian (AI) and Alaska Native (AN) persons in the United States. These two populations—collectively referred to as Native Americans—have been served by the Indian Health Services (IHS) since it was established through the Snyder Act of 1921, in response to the dismal health conditions of the indigenous tribes in this country.1 Across the US (not only in Alaska), the IHS has partnered with AI/AN peoples to decrease health disparities in a culturally acceptable manner that honors and protects their traditions and values.
The IHS—which in 2016 comprised 2,500 nurses, 750 physicians, 700 pharmacists, 200 PAs and NPs, and 280 dentists, as well as nutritionists, diabetes educators, administrators, and other professionals—has made huge advances in decreasing health disparities in their populations. Among them: decreased rates of tuberculosis and of maternal and infant deaths.
However, life expectancy among Native Americans remains four years shorter than that of the rest of the US population. This disparity can be traced to three recalcitrant factors: unintentional injuries, liver disease, and diabetes.
The IHS practitioners decided to tackle diabetes with a multipronged approach. And what they achieved is astonishing.
WHAT THEY DID
Worldwide, diabetes is the most common cause of kidney failure; identifying patients with diabetes and early-stage chronic kidney disease allows for aggressive treatment that can slow progression to kidney failure and dialysis.
The IHS providers knew when they decided to tackle the problem of diabetes in the AI/AN population that the incidence was 16%—and the rate of diabetes leading to kidney failure in this population was the highest for any ethnic group in the US.2,3 And yet …
From 1996 to 2013, the rate of diabetes-related kidney failure among Native Americans dropped by 54%.3 Yes—the group of patients with the highest percentage of diabetes diagnoses has had the greatest improvement in prevention of kidney failure.4
Continue to: Some of the clinical achievements that contributed to...