Dr. MICHAEL HANIFEN
Despite the promising recent news that those who want the vaccine can get one, Alaska has been seeing a troubling trend. There has been a considerable surge of new cases of the virus in Interior Alaska, leaving healthcare workers concerned for public health more widely in the area.
Unfortunately, this news reflects a broader trend of health disparities that have torn through Alaska for years. With such a large rural population, many people across our state lack consistent, reliable access to high-quality healthcare, putting many in danger of having serious health problems with nowhere to turn.
In rural areas with less reliable access to internet services, even telehealth isn’t always a viable option. A report released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in five American Indians or Alaska Natives were in “fair or poor health,” considerably more than the 12.1 percent average for U.S. adults more broadly.
Furthermore, data from the Indian Health Service, which is operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reveals American Indians and Alaska Natives have a life expectancy of 5.5 years lower than the average for the U.S. population. They also have higher rates of various health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, liver disease, and more.
Add in the pandemic, and the problems only grow. According to a CDC report issued last summer, American Indians and Alaska Natives had an incidence of confirmed Covid-19 cases 3.5 times higher than other Americans. These communities were also at higher risk for serious health problems due to the coronavirus pandemic, amplifying the broader inconsistencies at work that must be addressed.
Finally, reining in these health concerns will be a daunting task that requires action from more than just state or federal governments. Thankfully, many companies and nonprofits are stepping up to tackle the issues of both rural health among Native American Indian and Alaska Native populations.
For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs recently partnered with Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and Philips North America to create a program called Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations (ATLAS). This program helps to bring telehealth options directly to veterans – many of whom live in rural parts of Alaska and other states – directly at their closest VFW or American Legion posts. That way, they don’t have to worry about being unable to use home telehealth options and can avoid extensive travel.
In another public-private partnership that saw a high level of success, the IHS partnered with Philips and eHealth Initiative to create a series of webinars on Native Americans’ health during the pandemic. Now, Philips is also partnering with the Health Equity, Action & Leadership Initiative, which provides fellows who spend two years working and learning from hospitals in Native American communities.
The inconsistencies that pervade the American healthcare system will not be dispatched overnight, and the success of efforts to bring them to an end will depend on support from local and federal lawmakers.
Our lawmakers should be doing what they can to expand public-private partnerships like those that (ATLAS) is spearheading. Given that these issues affect Alaskans poignantly and uniquely, I encourage Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young to help support both public and private projects to create and sustain a more equitable consistent health system for all Alaskans.
Dr. Michael Hanifen is owner and president of North Star Chiropractic Wellness Center, LLC.