(Published in LINKS: Minority Research & Training - Fall 2009 )
Yvette Roubideaux, M.D., M.P.H, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, was confirmed as director of the Indian Health Service (IHS) on May 6, 2009, by a unanimous vote of the U.S. Senate. She is the first woman to hold this position.
“It is an honor to be named the ninth director of IHS and to be the first woman director. I am humbled by the response I’ve received. Many American Indian and Alaska Native people have said that they can now encourage their daughters to aspire to become the director of IHS,” says Roubideaux.
IHS, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was established in 1955 as the principal Federal healthcare provider and health advocate for the American Indian and Alaska Native populations. Today, the IHS serves approximately 1.9 million people representing 562 federally recognized tribes in 35 states.
Roubideaux was introduced to IHS at a young age. “My first encounter with the healthcare system was as a patient in the IHS,” she recalls. “I remember waiting several hours to see a doctor, who was never an American Indian. This childhood experience inspired me to become a doctor. IHS is so important to so many people and as a physician I wanted to help IHS and the American Indian and Alaska Native communities it serves by improving the quality of health care.”
The drive to make a difference in the health of American Indians and Alaska Natives led Roubideaux to become clinical director and medical officer of IHS’s San Carlos Service Unit on the Apache Indian reservation. After serving as a medical officer at the Hu Hu Memorial Hospital on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona, Roubideaux returned to Harvard University (where she had received her medical degree) to get her Master of Public Health. “I thought I could make a larger impact on the quality of health care through research,” she explains. Her research career started with funding from the NIA.
Roubideaux’s advice to early career researchers interested in American Indian and Alaska Native communities:
I would stress the importance of learning as much as you can about the health needs of these elders. This includes reviewing the research that has been done so far and learning about researchers in this area. Tribes are sovereign nations and have a role in conducting research—you cannot do research without approval of the tribe. You should consider tribal leadership as partners in the research project. Tribes want research that can help identify the needs of members, but respect for the role of culture and language is critical for researchers (and physicians) to take into consideration when designing and implementing studies.I also would emphasize that you cannot do research alone. It involves collaboration with a team. Do not try to do things single-handedly. When working on any research, regardless of the topic, it is important for you to have a group that you can bounce ideas off of and mentors who can teach you skills beyond the classroom. And, this community can also help with your career advancement.
In 1998 to 2000, Roubideaux was selected for what was then a new training program with the Native Elder Research Center (NERC) at the University of Colorado, one of NIA’s Resource Centers for Minority Aging Research (RCMAR). “As a RCMAR scholar, I obtained skills to help me become a successful investigator.” She also benefited from the guidance of a mentor, Spero Manson, Ph.D., who is the Principal Investigator of the University of Colorado RCMAR. “I was fortunate to interact with a network of 30 to 40 researchers, representing a wealth of experience. This program formed the basis for the rest of my research career,” says Roubideaux.
While in the program, Roubideaux began to study quality-of-care issues with diabetes patients and diabetes prevention programs. Diabetes and other chronic diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke are the most prevalent health issues among older American Indian and Alaska Native populations according to Roubideaux. Part of the reason, she explains, is because people are living longer. Another reason for this increase in chronic disease is because these populations are moving beyond the reservation, and the lifestyle in the United States can be a risk factor.
After completing the Native Elders RCMAR program, Roubideaux joined the NERC faculty at University of Colorado (and the faculty at University of Arizona, College of Public Health and College of Medicine) and became a mentor to subsequent RCMAR scholars. “I think it is just as important to be a mentor as it is to have a mentor. I’m sitting here as director of IHS because of support and mentorship of a large group of people,” says Roubideaux.
“Dr. Roubideaux has demonstrated great dedication to the health needs of the American Indian and Alaska Native populations throughout her career, and I congratulate her on being named director of IHS. I am proud that her history includes participation and leadership in the NIA’s RCMAR program,” says NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D.
As director of IHS, Roubideaux will continue her mission to improve quality of health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives. “Each of my experiences has been a building block, leading me to this point. I look forward to applying the skills and perspective as a doctor, researcher, and American Indian to my new position as director of IHS.”