- Associated Press - Sunday, May 25, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - There were few role models in medicine that aspiring doctor Tamsen O'Berry could look to for support on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, so she carved out her own track.

The 33-year-old graduated from the Sanford College of Nursing with top honors two weeks ago and has a job lined up at Sanford Health in Bismarck. But O'Berry is in the minority among the 13,500 nurses in North Dakota: Only about 170, or 1 percent, are American Indian.

O’Berry joined other nurses, students and higher education officials for the third annual American Indians in Nursing conference, held Tuesday in Bismarck, to discuss recent increases in the number of nurses as well as what needs to be done to encourage more to join the profession.

American Indians make up almost 6 percent of North Dakota’s population, making them largest minority group in the state. But the group is more likely to have higher rates of disease and deaths compared to other Americans, according to the federal Indian Health Service. Patients on reservations, such as Fort Berthold, are more likely to seek health care if they know they’ll be treated by someone from their community, nurses at the conference said.

“I think we talk a lot about health disparities and one of the main things to overcome that is to actually have that representation in the health professions,” O'Berry said.

Most at the conference said there’s more trust when American Indian patients have nurses who understand their customs, or even speak their language.

“Not just native language, there’s a different language when it comes to the reservations and dealing with patients,” said Marilyn Yellow Bird, who works as a Public Health Nurse at Elbowoods Memorial Health Center in New Town, which serves the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. “Patients are more comfortable.”

North Dakota has had programs to help Americans Indians get into nursing since the early 1990s, but a lack of funding prevents those programs providing more financial aid to students and hiring more staff, according to Deb Wilson, RAIN program coordinator at the University of North Dakota.

RAIN, or the Recruitment/Retention of American Indians into Nursing, has accounted for an estimated 80 percent of American Indian nurses working in the state since 1990, Wilson said. But she wants that number to increase.

“We’ve been funded for 24 years through Indian Health Service,” Wilson said. “We haven’t seen an increase in our funding.”

Four University of North Dakota nursing students, all from the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, spoke Tuesday about why they wanted to become nurses.

Andrea Langan said working with American Indian patients in Grand Forks has shown her how patients can open up when they’re comfortable.

“If I walk in to a patient’s room and they’re Native American, I can stay in there all day and talk with them and they can tell me all their problems, and they’re usually not too open,” she said.