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Sanford doctor aims to improve Indian health care

LaRaye Anderson, the White Earth Tribal Community Health education program manager, talks with Dr. Donald Warne, the director of the Sanford Health Office of Native American Health, after a meeting Thursday at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Bemidji already is ahead of other Sanford Health centers in one regard, Dr. Donald Warne said Thursday afternoon.

Sanford Bemidji Medical Center has on staff an Indian health care coordinator, a position that medical centers in both Sioux Falls, S.D., and Fargo, N.D., do not have.

Warne is the director of Sanford Health's Office of Native American Health, located in Sioux Falls, which aims to address health disparities between American Indians and the general population.

He was visiting Bemidji Thursday to take part in several meetings, one of which was at the hospital with local Indian health care providers. Representatives were present from the Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth tribes.

"I don't want us in Bemidji and the reservations around Bemidji to not be included in all of this planning and initiatives being discussed at Sanford in Sioux Falls," said Warren Larson, public affairs/community development director for Sanford Bemidji Clinic, who has been wanting to schedule a Bemidji visit for Warne.

Indian health care providers heard about Warne's efforts though the Sanford Office of Native America Health. Then, all the participants had discussed existing deficiencies and shared ideas for improving Indian health care.

Warne highlighted the Indian health advocate/liaison position at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center.

The position is unique to other rural hospitals but is not new to Bemidji. Now held by Vikki Howard, it previously was filled by Joe Johnson.

The Star Tribune in November profiled Aida Winona Strom, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Oyate, who had just completed her first year as the American Indian patient advocate at Hennepin County Medical Center. HCMC has had four advocates throughout 20 years.

The article noted American Indian advocates are rare for hospitals. One person in the article said she knew of just one other in South Dakota.

Bemidji is still relatively new to Sanford Health. Sanford Health and MeritCare merged in November 2009, which affected the local clinic. Sanford Health and North Country Health Services merged officially last week, affecting the hospital.

The Sanford Office of Native American Health was started in August, but Warne is hoping it soon will expand.

Ideally, the office should have clinical, research and policy directors and an education coordinator, he said.

Warne has submitted a proposal to Sanford Health that would fund the clinical and policy directorspositions.

"That, as a starting point, would be a big help," he said.

He has yet to hear a response to the proposal, but said he is encouraged.

"It looks promising that the Office of Native American Health will grow," he said.

The Office of Native American Health looks inward at Sanford's health care delivery and also outward at how health care delivery can be improved for Indians.

The Office of Native American Health focuses on four key goals: better clinical care, research, education and policy development.

The office focuses on the Midwest, where Sanford has a presence.

Warne formerly was executive director of the Aberdeen Area Tribal Chairmen's Health Board in Rapid City, S.D. He is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe of Pine Ridge, S.D. He has worked as a primary care and integrative medicine physician and a staff clinician.

His past experiences have offered him the chance with numerous tribes throughout the Midwest, he said.

Warne said coming to Bemidji and speaking with different groups offered him the chance to discuss the efforts supported by his office and to create partnerships with local tribes.

It was an opportunity to gather input from tribal leaders and key players in providing area Indian health care, he noted.