Fort Lewis College, CU Anschutz team up on Indigenous-focused nursing degree

A new partnership between two Colorado higher education institutions aims to tackle a shortage of Indigenous nurses while bolstering rural health care in the Four Corners region through a novel, culturally-competent four-year nursing degree at Durango’s Fort Lewis College.

The program, expected to begin in the fall of 2023, will bring the nursing curriculum and professors from the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus to the Indigenous-serving college in southwest Colorado, said Amy Barton, CU Anschutz senior associate dean for faculty and students in the College of Nursing.

“There are no places doing this,” said Cheryl Nixon, Fort Lewis College’s provost. “There needs to be solutions to rural nursing and especially nursing that reflects that demographic that’s diverse, first-generation college students who understand how community-approached nursing would work because they’ve lived in that community and they know that would resonate.”

Fort Lewis College — formerly a federally-run Indian boarding school — now offers free tuition for students from federally-recognized Native American tribes or Alaska Native villages. More than 40% of its student population is Native American or Alaska Native, representing 184 tribes and Native Alaskan villages.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, only 341 students who identified as Alaskan Native or American Indian in the United States graduated from an accredited nursing program in 2020 compared to more than 6,450 Asian students, more than 7,000 Black students, more than 8,700 Latino students and more than 50,780 white students.

According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Colorado had the fourth-lowest concentration of nursing professionals by state in the U.S. in 2020.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office studied employment data from the Indian Health Service in 2018 and concluded there are not enough health care providers in the IHS’ service area to provide quality and timely health care to Indigenous people, with the average vacancy rate for physicians, nurses and other care providers at 25%

“The need for health care on reservations is extreme, and there are very few Natives trained in nursing,” Nixon said. “We feel there’s a real need in the Indigenous community we can help with.”

The Durango-based program intends to fuse Fort Lewis’s liberal arts core with CU’s nursing expertise while incorporating curriculum specifically focused on the needs of rural and Indigenous health care.

For example, Nixon said, courses may emphasize learning about health conditions particularly prevalent in Indigenous and rural populations, including asthma and diabetes. Courses would also include how to do the job with Indigenous values in mind, Nixon said.

“Many work with Indigenous plants in their area and have a deep understanding of traditional forms of medicine and Western meds is just catching up to this,” Nixon said. “We would focus on respecting that understanding of traditional forms of medicine and care and traditional ceremonies and interweaving that into making the care most effective.”

The program also will teach about being an effective nurse via telehealth to best serve rural populations in the Four Corners region that may be unable to drive long distances to receive medical care, Barton said.

The colleges plan to reach out to local Native tribes to ask what they need and consult on the culturally-competent curriculum, Nixon said.

“It’s an intentional focus of how do we better diversify our profession and it’s important that patients can relate to their caregivers, and it’s helpful if they look like them,” Barton said. “That’s what we’re in the process of doing and this partnership with Fort Lewis really allows us to take advantage of the strengths of both institutions and to do something creative, new and different.”

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