GRAND FORKS — It’s barely been approved for a week and students are knocking down the doors at the University of North Dakota’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences to get into the newly formed doctorate program in indigenous health.

The Ph.D. program will be the first of its kind when it starts this fall, according to Dr. Donald Warne, an associate dean at the UND medical school, director of the Indians Into Medicine program and director of the master's of public health program.

“We’re very excited about the opportunity,” he said. “The response has been tremendous.”

More than 50 potential students have expressed interest in the initial 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.

“That tells us it’s been an area of need that has not been addressed by higher education until now,” Warne said. “So, we’re very, very pleased to take the lead on that effort.”

Kalisi Uluave, who is in the middle of obtaining his master's degree in public health with a specialty in indigenous health, is considering applying to the program.

Indigenous populations face their own issues, according to Uluave, who is 100% indigenous — half Tongan and half Navajo. He said his goal is to improve health policies for indigenous populations and the program will support him in that effort.

Uluave studied biology and chemistry at Dixie State University in southern Utah. He came to UND about two years ago specifically for graduate school because of the other indigenous programs offered at UND.

"I think it's amazing," Uluave said of the university's new program. "It puts UND head and shoulders above all other institutions in terms of indigenous health scholars."

Warne said, while there a couple other interdisciplinary doctoral programs that have coursework in indigenous health, this will be the first doctorate program. The courses are primarily taught by indigenous faculty as well, said Warne, noting that is another unique factor.

During his State of the State address Wednesday, Jan. 29, Gov. Doug Burgum said UND made “history” with the program offering and applauded Warne for his work.

The program isn’t just a want but a need, Warne said.

Indigenous populations around the world tend to suffer from the same types of health disparities — higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, addiction and suicide, he said. Much of those disparities are caused by historical trauma, adverse childhood experiences and other historical issues. Having a better understanding of those issues is why having a program like UND's is important, he said.

“Doing a doctoral program of indigenous health really targets a population that has been underrepresented in the past, both in terms of health care providers, but also in terms of health care delivery,” said Joshua Wynne, interim UND president and dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Warne added there is a lack of indigenous leaders at academic health institutions.

Graduates of the program will be well positioned to join faculty in public health, indigenous studies and other disciplines at universities and tribal colleges, said Warne, who is one of two American Indian directors of a masters in public health program in the nation. There are no American Indian medical school deans and there are only three associate deans who are American Indian in the nation, two of whom are at UND — Warne and Joy Dorscher.

“I think that, when we look at academic programs, quite often a lack of diversity among leadership can result in a lack of awareness of a specific culture’s needs around health professions education,” Warne said. “UND is leading the nation in terms of building capacities to at least address indigenous health issues we have.”

Since Warne started in 2018, the medical school has hired five indigenous health scholars, who have nearly 100 years of combined experience in indigenous health.

Warne said he 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,” said Warne, who has secured more than $2 million in external funding for indigenous health research and public health programming.

UND is already doing work in indigenous health with its INMED, Indians in Medicine, program. As of May 2019, INMED had graduated 244 American Indian/Alaska Native physicians, “making it the most successful indigenous medical training program internationally and in history,” UND said in a press release.

Warne said 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, the release said.

Nicole Redvers, assistant professor of family and community medicine and a First Nations person from Canada, said she is proud of the university for “taking leadership on this important endeavor.”

“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,” she said in a statement. “I am very proud to be a part of this program and look forward to working toward better health for our people.”