Friday, May 14, 2010

Native American Health Care

Well, this ain't good:

Dozens of people given free blood sugar tests April 24 are at a slight risk of having been exposed to two forms of Hepatitis and/or HIV, which causes AIDS, due to the improper administration of the testing devices, University of New Mexico School of Medicine officials announced Thursday.

As many as 33 of 55 given the free blood sugar tests at an event at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center could have been exposed to other people’s blood and possibly infected, said Dr. Bob Bailey, associate dean for Clinical Affairs for the UNM School of Medicine.


What they had determined by Thursday was that 10 students from the University of New Mexico Physician Assistant program had decided to administer free blood sugar tests and bought the testing devices themselves.

A faculty member from the PA program accompanied the students to the event, where the students administered the tests. The first error occurred when the students employed a particular testing device meant for a single patient on multiple patients, exposing them to another person’s blood, Bailey said.
The students were not properly trained on the device, he added. The third error happened when the students kept no records, so the school had no names of those potentially infected when they began trying to track them down.

“The UNM School of Medicine deeply regrets this error and sincerely apologizes to all those who may have been exposed, and to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center,” Bailey said.

The real story here is that the health care system provides such poor care for Native Americans that student-provided testing, however poor it may be, proves really appealing for them. In fact, Native Americans receive less access to virtually all of our social services and other forms of infrastructure. For example, it took until the Clinton Administration for Navajos poisoned by uranium mining in the 1950s to receive anything resembling adequate care and compensation, by which time many of the affected were dead. A majority of residents on the Navajo reservation do not have electricity, despite the fact that enormous coal-fired power plants are just off their land in New Mexico.

Native Americans suffer from extreme obesity and diabetes rates due to the radical changes in their lifestyles and diets over the past 125 years. Infant mortality rates are higher than the national average, as is drug use, suicide, and many other negative health indicators. While some of this story is unique to Native American and Native American history, it also shares many commonalities with urban African-Americans, poor whites in Appalachia, and Latinos in many parts of the nation. For all of these groups, health care is inadequate and when it is available, it is often shockingly sub-standard, as we see in this story.

The other thing to wonder is why the students chose to do this. Obviously they saw this as a good opportunity to practice their craft. Was it because the patients were Indians? Do we just assume that the extreme poor and racial minorities are a open field for medical testing? Certainly we have in the past. While I doubt the students were malicious in their actions, it does suggest an unconscious belief about Native American bodies and medical testing.

But again, the real story is how our health care system serves so many of our citizens so incredibly poorly.