Newswise — The North Dakota State Board of Higher Education has made history by allowing the University of North Dakota to offer the world’s first doctoral program in Indigenous health.  

The Ph.D. degree will launch this fall, and prospective students are already inquiring about the program, said Dr. Donald Warne, director of the Indians Into Medicine (INMED) and Master of Public Health (MPH) programs at UND, who led the push for the new program.

“There is a need for well-trained administrators with a deep understanding of Indigenous health issues,” Warne said. “There is nothing like that in the world.”

Warne, who also serves as professor of family and community medicine as well as associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences, has a history of “firsts.”

With a holistic vision that starts with educating middle school students and taking them through high school, college and beyond, Warne said that UND will offer the world’s only Indigenous health doctoral program, the only online bachelor’s/master’s degree combination in public health, and one of a very few MPH degrees with a focus on Indigenous health.

As of May 2019, INMED has graduated 244 American Indian/Alaska Native physicians, making it the most successful Indigenous medical training program internationally and in history. The new program will be linked to the INMED and MPH programs.

High-value degree

“This will be a high value degree that’s unique in the nation,” Warne said. “We have eight Indigenous health scholars at the School, which is an unprecedented number. Through national and international collaborations, we will offer distance education opportunities for students across North Dakota, the region and around the world.”

“I am so proud of the University of North Dakota for taking leadership on this important endeavor,” said Dr. Nicole Redvers, assistant professor of family & community medicine and a First Nations person from Canada. “This program will lead the globe, integrating both Indigenous and Western knowledge to prepare a new generation of health scholars to tackle the health issues facing Indigenous people everywhere. I am very proud to be a part of this program and look forward to working toward better health for our people.”

UND’s President and Dean of the SMHS Dr. Joshua Wynne agreed.

“Over his career, Dr. Warne has been a tireless advocate to ensure that our health care delivery team—both at the state and national level—reflects the rich diversity of our populations,” Dr. Wynne said. “This new program offering at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences is another big step in developing a truly inclusive and equitable makeup of those involved in the health care delivery enterprise.”

A global need

There is a global need for advanced training in Indigenous health, and Warne expects robust demand for graduates of the program.

Career opportunities include health researchers, health program evaluators, policy analysts, faculty, program administrators and consultants, and public health officers. Graduates will be uniquely positioned to join faculty in public health, Indigenous studies, and other disciplines at universities and tribal colleges.

“At the international level, the coordination of health needs across Indigenous populations is greater now than at any point in history,” Warne said, adding that the Indian Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and National Institutes of Health all need well-trained administrators with a deep understanding of Indigenous health issues.

Before developing the program, Warne consulted with organizations that include the National Indian Health Board, Indian Health Service, National Indian Education Association, American Indian Science & Engineering Society, Association of American Indian Physicians, and others, all of whom agreed on the need.

Meeting a demand

More than 35 potential students have expressed interest in the initial eight to 12 spots in the program, which is a 60-credit, post-master’s degree that includes research and evaluation methods, policy and leadership. It will be delivered nationally and internationally through distance delivery, with students coming to campus twice per year for in-person instruction.

Courses will be taught by faculty in population health and family & community medicine, along with 10 Indigenous health scholars at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences.

The program addresses multiple goals of the One UND Strategic Plan, including those to increase graduate and online enrollment (Goal 3, enrollment) and enhance discovery through research (Goal 4, research). It also addresses UND’s Grand Challenges in human and rural health.

Warne believes that opportunities to expand research, grant funding, scholarship and discovery are virtually limitless.

“We anticipate substantial increases in external funding, publications, and student research opportunities led by faculty in Indigenous health,” Warne said. He has already secured more than $2 million in external funding for Indigenous health research and public health programing.

“I want to prepare the next generation of health professionals,” Warne said. “I love engaging all students, Native American or not. Our Ph.D. program will be the national and international leader in Indigenous health education, innovation and scholarship. We will expand outreach and engagement across North Dakota, the region, and around the world.”