First Tribally Affiliated Medical School Opens in the US

This White Coat Ceremony marked a new era in American medicine.

Native American student wearing a white hospital coat.

(El Nariz / Shutterstock.com)

At the White Coat Ceremony, first-year medical students receive their medical jackets and recite the Hippocratic Oath, marking a transition into the world of medicine. While all such ceremonies are meaningful, an especially moving event happened at a medical school in Oklahoma. This historic ceremony was especially moving as it signified a new era of inclusion of Native Americans entering medicine. 

On July 31, according to a press release from Oklahoma State University (OSU), 54 future doctors were welcomed to the College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation, the first ever tribally affiliated medical school in the US. Within this inaugural Class of 2024, 20 percent are of Native American heritage, while 40 percent come from rural communities.

Speakers at the ceremony credited Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Bill John Baker, the former Principal Chief, with facilitating the partnership between OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Cherokee Nation, according to Tulsa World.

“History is being made today. As each of you receives your white coat and embark on a four-year journey that will forever shape the delivery of health care for our Cherokee people in rural Oklahoma,” Hoskin said in an online speech to the students.“That dream is now a reality,” he said. “Our people will need you and rural Oklahoma will need you.”

Former Chief Baker said that training and developing physicians was a logical next step for the Cherokee Nation. “After we were removed from tribal lands and there were no teachers, we invested our treasury into teachers,” he told MedScape. “This is a natural progression. Just as our ancestors grew their own teachers 150 years ago, we want to grow our own doctors,” Baker explained.

The Cherokee Nation paid $40 million for the construction of the medical school, a modern 84,000-square-foot facility. Construction on the site is expected to be completed this year. The campus officially sits on Cherokee tribal land, but four other tribal nations­—the Chickasaw, Seminole, Choctaw and Muscogee (Creek) peoples—agreed to share the burden of supporting the new institution. 

The five indigenous nations have pledged to provide financial backing for scholarships, as well as allowing students to utilize tribal clinics for clinical rotations.

Student Ashton Glover-Gatewood, a member of the Choctaw Nation and first year medical student, told The State, the official magazine of OSU, that she appreciated the school’s commitment to hands-on training within community-based frameworks. “Being able to practice within Indian Health Service allows me to serve a great need in my own native community,” she said.

“Not only is a trusting relationship facilitated by patients having access to medical doctors who look like them, but also higher quality of health care delivery can be enjoyed by both patients and physicians,” Glover-Gatewood said.

As the first ever tribally affiliated medical school, the College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation signifies progress in the world of medicine. The program aims to shape future doctors to work with communities who have lacked medical care and resources, according to MedScape.

By focusing on community-based, holistic frameworks, it is clear that the school is well on the way to training medical professionals who can fulfill that mission. Having a focus on giving back and cultural sensitivity, the Class of 2024 donned their white coats with a vision to make a positive impact.

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