Kansas tribal leaders eager to broaden access to traditional, technological health care

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Tribal interests point to blending natural medicines with modern innovations

TOPEKA — Prairie Band Potawatomi member Richard Adame urged health administrators Monday to collaboratively share with tribes detailed information on attributes of natural medicines that was lost to many people through emergence and dominance of the pharmaceutical industry.

Adame, a U.S. Army retiree who grew up on the reservation in Kansas and lives in Mayetta, offered an example to participants at the Kansas Tribal Health Summit. He said the mullein plant found in roadsides and pastures could be used as a tea for medicinal purposes. Parts of the plant have been deployed to help address pulmonary problems, inflammatory diseases, asthma, coughs and migraine headaches.

“We’ve got elders in our communities that know about these plants. That’s what we used to do and that’s what we need to do,” said Adame, who advocated for application of traditional medicines as a supplement to prescribed drugs.

His audience included representatives of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas, Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska, and the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation.

Missty Slater, chief of staff to the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, said the tribe took a holistic approach to life that included the welfare of people, plants, animals, water and land. To tackle the major challenge of diabetes, she said, the tribe was pushing back against westernized diets contributing to blood-sugar problems by engaging in regenerative agriculture practices such as rotational grazing. Recent grant support is expected to allow the tribe to deliver to tribal members quality locally grown food, including plants viewed as a form of medicine.

“I love where you’re going,” Slater said. “The food-as-medicine pilot that the Iowa tribe is starting at the clinic … we do also mean things like medicinal teas and herbs. We have specifically created and preserved wild spaces for the foraging. And, for the wild plants, we have created codes to prevent overharvesting. If you get a permit to take these plants, you are going to share with elders who are not able to pick them.”

She said the goal was to devote one year to studying what worked well in terms of harvesting and distributing alternative medicines and share what was gleaned from the pilot with interested tribes. She said the tribe was hoping to collaborate with indigenous researchers to track health outcomes.

“Before we had clinics and before we had doctors, we had our own medicine and a lot of our medicine worked,” said Brigette Robidoux, treasurer of Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska. “Why can’t we use that?”

 Nancy Rios, federal Health Resources and Services Administration regional administrator, emphasized Monday during the Kansas Tribal Health Summit in Topeka the substantial financial and delivery challenges of providing medical services in tribal communities. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Big health challenges

Nancy Rios, regional administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said half of positive outcomes from clinical interventions were tied to social determinants of health. Her region includes Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska.

“It’s just addressing transportation, addressing housing, addressing access to clean water and to food,” she said. “I’m talking about doing patient-centered type of care, doing holistic approaches to care.”

Members of the panel said those factors were woven into the struggle within tribal communities to deal with diabetes and cancers as well as complexities of mental and behavioral health. Rising anxiety among youth illustrated the need for more access to therapists, panelists said.

Paul Austin, a pharmacist and director of the Kickapoo Health Clinic, said recruiting health professionals, including psychologists, to work at tribal clinics was an impediment to service delivery. He said tribal youth were interested in access to in-person mental health services at the clinic, but wanted it to be provided by Native American professionals.

“That adds an extra layer of trying to meet that need (and) of getting more specific kinds of providers,” Austin said.

The reality of antiquated and insufficient infrastructure on reservations was highlighted along with barriers to securing financing for building upgrades, panelists said. Some reservations had limited open land to build health facilities, but if space was available the construction and borrowing costs made projects unrealistic.

Jay Mooney, director of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Health Center, said the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t transform priorities of tribal health facilities.

“What COVID did was really exacerbate issues,” Mooney said. “We know diabetes is more prevalent in Indian country. We know mental health issues. I think what COVID did was just make those worse.”

Technological edge

Slater, of the Iowa Tribe, said COVID-19 compelled health care administrators to explore telemedicine because in-person visits with doctors and clinicians were problematic. Federal funding allowed tribes to expand broadband infrastructure and offer more reliable internet service, she said.

“The ability to communicate more effectively through technology about some of our health issues has changed. It has changed for the better,” she said. “We are currently looking at trying to expand the ability that we have to support our patients to access telehealth services.”

Robidoux, of the Sac and Fox Nation, said some people living on reservations were apprehensive about leaving their home to attend to personal health issues and preferred the more discrete option of telehealth.

Mooney, of the Prairie Band health center, said the facility was assessing potential of creating a telehealth network so youth at a Boys and Girls Club or comparable location could speak online to a pediatric psychiatrist.

He said tribal health administrators had to rely on data to figure out what services could more efficiently be offered at the clinic in Mayetta. He said that influenced a decision to add mobile MRI services. In addition, he said, a home health aide program was started to help fill the deficit in access to long term residential care.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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