Photo: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Making Strides in Native American Health

Dr. Donald Warne, an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine in 1995 as a primary care physician. “I went into primary care a little naively,” he now admits. “I thought I could have a big impact on Indian health as a primary care doctor, but I found that work needs to be done further upstream.”

That’s when public health became his passion. Public health focuses on policies and programs that prevent disease and disability, and promote healthy lifestyles through education and community engagement.

Today, Dr. Warne is Chair of the North Dakota State University Department of Public Health. At NDSU, Warne created a new Master’s of Public Health degree with an emphasis in American Indian Public Health. Of the 130 students that have matriculated into the MPH program, 31 are Native American. 

Warne has also been involved in Zero Suicide, a project to identify and help persons with a high risk of suicide. Initiatives such as the Horse Culture Program on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming have made strides in preventing teen suicide on reservations. 

Warne also heads the American Indian Public Health Resource Center at NDSU. Among his AIPHRC projects is the 638 Toolkit, which helps tribes that want to take over management of their own healthcare services. Public Law 93-638, also known as the Indian Self-Determination & Education Assistance Act, allows tribes to contract directly with the government, rather than rely on the Indian Health Service to provide care.

The center, which recently received a $1.16 million grant from Helmsley’s Rural Healthcare Program, works with tribes across the Northern Plains to tackle issues such as infant mortality, smoking-related cancer and heart disease and diabetes prevention.

“With this funding, we plan to take this work to the next level and join the National Network of Public Health Institutes. …We will be able to access new partners in promoting public health in underserved populations,” Warne said.