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Student Study Looks for Solutions to Poor Health Care for American Indians

Students with the American Indian Patient Experience Think Tank course at the University of Utah’s Honors College.

May 8, 2012—Is there a cultural bias in healthcare services? Students in the American Indian Patient Experience Think Tank course at the University of Utah’s Honors College took an in-depth look at the complex issues surrounding American Indian healthcare.

According to the group, the American Indian population suffers “significantly lower health status and disproportionate rates of disease” compared with the general population of the United States. Throughout their projects, students peeled back the layers of a complex healthcare system looking for practical ways to implement improvements.

The result of this intensive year-long course includes several student-created, functional healthcare prototypes intended to incite change in the local system. Projects include ideas to advance university partnerships, provide service and establish preventive health practices.

Students explored many issues, including differential delivery of healthcare services, service access and availability and other social, cultural and financial barriers. The students closely examined underlying issues associated with a breakdown in patient care and then met with local and regional health care experts, members of the American Indian population and community mentors to identify specific problem areas and outline solutions. Course participants focused on designing sustainable models that will reduce or eliminate these barriers, making quality patient care accessible for Utah’s American Indian population.

“This course and the associated student projects address a ‘quiet crisis’ on Utah’s American Indian reservations and the extremely complicated system that this vulnerable group of citizens has to navigate just to get health care,” says Melissa Zito, Indian health liaison and health policy consultant. “American Indians lead the state in most of the health indicators showing the current disparities in health care. The U Honors Think Tank made it a priority to take an in-depth look at the issues from a systems and community perspective to improve the patient experience.”

This intensive learning experience encouraged students to use “design thinking”—an  innovative approach taught by James Agutter, research assistant professor and director of design at the U’s College of Architecture + Planning. This method of learning requires students to reach beyond their normal means of study and to incorporate purposeful observation of key issues and build a solution using creative cross-disciplinary methods.

“The goal was to get students out of the classroom and into the community that surrounds them,” says Agutter.  “We wanted them to be challenged to participate fully in the development of new ideas that address the ‘quiet crisis’ and bring it to the forefront of many people’s minds.”