The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) was established by Congress in 1972 under the Uniformed Services Health Professions Revitalization Act. The only medical school administered by the federal government, “America’s Medical School” as it is affectionately known, has a mission to educate, train, and comprehensively prepare uniformed services health professionals to support the US military and public health system.
The USU School of Medicine (SOM) matriculates about 170 students each year. Although the majority of the medical students receive commissions in the US Army, Navy, or Air Force and serve as military physicians in the Department of Defense (DoD), a small number of students each year are commissioned as officers in the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (PHS). The PHS is a uniformed service within the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) whose officers serve nationwide in more than 30 government agencies. However, unlike its sister DoD services, the PHS does not participate in the Health Professions Scholarship Program, so admission to USU represents the only direct accession to the PHS Commissioned Corps for prospective physicians.
Beginning with the first graduating class, more than 160 PHS physician officers have now been trained under agreements with PHS agencies and SOM, and numerous others have received training and experience from the other academic programs and research centers within USU. Ten of those graduates achieved the rank of Rear Admiral, the general officer or “flag” position of the PHS.
The benefits of the partnerships between USU, PHS, and the agencies served by PHS to public health outcomes are many. Specifically, investment in PHS students at the SOM has served to ease disparities experienced by American Indians and Alaskan Natives (AI/AN), combat the shortage of primary care physicians (PCPs), generate exceptional clinical researchers, and train health care professionals to be prepared and ready to respond to emerging threats to public health.
Addressing Health Care Disparities Experienced by AI/AN
Through numerous treaties, laws, court cases, and Executive Orders—and most recently reaffirmed by the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (2010)–the US federal government holds responsibility for the provision of medical services to AI/AN. The Indian Health Service (IHS) is the principal federal provider of health care services for the AI/AN population. The mission of the IHS is to raise the physical, mental, social, and spiritual health of the AI/AN population to the highest level. It seeks to accomplish this mission by assuring that comprehensive, culturally acceptable personal and public health services are available and accessible to all AI/AN people.
Agency partnerships at USU, like the one between the school and IHS, sponsor medical students to become PHS physicians who can combat health disparities, especially those experienced by AI/AN. AI/AN continue to be subjected to disparities in health status across a wide array of chronic conditions, with significantly higher mortality rates than those of white populations.1 These trends are driven by multifactorial etiologies, including social determinants of health,2 obesity and the metabolic syndrome,3 high rates of tobacco and alcohol use,4 and limited access to medical care.5
Recruitment and retention of health care providers (HCPs) has long been a challenge for the IHS.6 Despite many attractive factors, providing care in a setting of otherwise limited resources and the relative remoteness of most facilities may prove to be deterring factors to prospective applicants. Furthermore, promotion of quality providers to administrative roles and high turnover rates of contractors or temporary staff contribute to poor continuity of care in certain locations. Consequently, efforts are under way to increase provider retention and continuity of care for patients.
This effort is augmented by training officers for a career of service to the IHS within the PHS. After completion of medical school and a residency in primary care, IHS-sponsored graduates from USU serve as officers in the PHS, stationed at an IHS-designated high-priority site for 10 years.7 However, many stay with the IHS for much longer, like IHS Chief Medical Officer, RADM Michael Toedt (USU 1995). In fact, nearly all the officers commissioned in the past 20 years are still on active duty. Within the IHS, physicians focus on community-oriented practice and improving the health of small-town and rural residents at tribal or federally operated clinics and community hospitals. In addition to performing clinical duties, graduates frequently become leaders within the IHS, advocating for systemwide improvements, performing practice-based research, and improving the overall well-being of AI/AN communities.