Updated: Jul 28
Does your healthcare provider host an overnight Traditional Health Gathering with hundreds of people pitching tents and spending quality time together, complete with a sweat lodge? Does its CEO climb into a dunk tank to raise awareness about opioids? Unless your health care is Indian Health Council, probably not.
That’s because Indian Health Council, which serves six thousand patients on a regular basis, is so much more than a health center – it is an organization that serves people from nine Indian reservations and beyond in ways that are making a profound difference in people’s lives.
In May, the Conrad Prebys Foundation awarded a two-year, $500,000 grant to Indian Health Council as part of its SHARE Initiative. The initiative provides unrestricted grants to health clinics that effectively serve communities needing improved health services – especially Indigenous, immigrant, and border residents. The initiative aims to ensure that excellent, culturally proficient healthcare is accessible to and in underserved communities. Grant recipients can use the funding in whatever way they think will be most effective for their organizations and the communities they serve.
The award is a tribute to the great success that the organization has achieved, and the funding will provide Indian Health Council with essential resources to continue to expand their work.
Indian Health Council’s history is itself a testament to the power of community. In 1970, a grassroots collaboration of Tribes and Tribal Councils came together to address a health care crisis that was having devastating consequences. Nine sovereign Tribal governments collaborated to build a health care system that is now a source of deep pride in the community.
“Our patients look to us for everything,” said Orvin Hanson, Indian Health Council’s CEO. “We don’t just offer medical or dental health. We are an integrated provider, and for our patients, this is their home.”
Hanson isn’t exaggerating. As Chief Operating Officer Angelina Renteria points out, “We literally know every single person who comes to IHC for care – whether it’s for medical, dental, or behavioral health, pharmacy, research, Tribal family services, health promotions, car seat classes – you name it. Not only do we foster relationships with that person, but we are also fortunate enough to know their grandparents, children, and cousins. Through home visits, IHC service providers and educators are welcomed into homes. Public health providers, including the Registered Dieticians and Physical Activity Specialists may even know what’s in the refrigerator. We are a trusted health provider that is proud to know our people.”
That kind of deep dedication is necessary in order to build trust, Hanson says. He acknowledges that the community is dealing with a devastating opioid epidemic and its associated behavioral health problems, as well as other health issues like childhood obesity and chronic pain, among others. Building trust with patients is an essential element of giving them space to express what they need and then finding ways to deliver the right kind of services.
To that end, Indian Health Council conducts significant community outreach to make sure that they are able to help as many people as possible. As David Dawson, who serves as the Council’s Marketing Director, notes, “We serve a huge area. Our people are really diverse, and some are very remote. Some have no power or sewage or basic services. We need to get the message to those remote locations to keep them informed. To do that, we have to be an active community partner.”
Such active engagement is expensive, says CEO Orvin Hanson. “As we design innovative care, it takes money to put the kind of people in place to provide the kinds of services our patients need,” he says. “We need proper equipment and facilities – especially for dental care. We have multiple specialists coming through. And so much of our care is done outside our two health centers – our reach even goes beyond our nine reservations.”
The payoff, says Renteria, is more than worth all the time and resources that go into serving the community. “We’re making a difference. All the hard work and sleepless nights to see our people with improved quality of life, happy and healthy, is worth every minute. That’s hands down the most rewarding work we do.”
And there is also the opportunity to come together and celebrate, like hosting community events like a Traditional Health Gathering, complete with group hikes and a sweat lodge ceremony, not to mention that dunk tank. “I was just so happy to be there and get dunked,” said Hanson.