Dr. Patricia Nez Henderson's grandfather was a Navajo medicine man, and many patients would travel long distances to see him. Dr. Nez Henderson is carrying on the family tradition by working to improve the health of wider communities as well as individual patients, as a public health physician specializing in the health care of American Indians.
While Patricia Nez was a student at the University of Arizona, her grandfather passed away. While remembering his life, she felt a renewed appreciation for the life-lessons he had taught her. She planned to go to medical school, but first wanted to earn a master of public health degree at Yale University to broaden her perspective about the health care system and the problems of health disparities among minority populations. The studies and experiences there helped her to better understand how social and cultural factors influence an individual's health and well-being.
After earning her master of public health degree, she remained at Yale to attend medical school. Facing both challenges and rewards there, she found that the faculty there had little experience with American Indian students in general, and that she was the only American Indian medical student on campus. She also struggled to bridge the gap between her Navajo upbringing and the methods of othodox medicine. She noticed that while this treated patients' physical and mental illnesses, it ignored their spiritual health, an aspect that her grandfather would always address.
During her last two years of medical school, she completed clinical clerkships with the Indian Health Service, where she was able to learn about clinical medicine and the health problems of American Indians. She became intrigued with understanding the origins of disease and illness among Indian communities and the biological, social, and cultural dimensions of the disease process. As a result, during her last year of medical school she decided that she would best serve American Indian and Alaskan Native people through a career in public health. "It had become clear to me that the health problems of American Indians were rooted at many different levels," she said. "Native communities need culturally sensitive public health advocates and researchersindividuals who can establish an intimate relationship with them while respecting their culture and traditions. My background as an American Indian and my experiences in medicine and public health equipped me to meet this challenge."
After earning her doctor of medicine in 1999, Dr. Nez was recruited to the faculty at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center as an assistant professor in the Division of American Indian and Alaska Native Programs. She was one of three new faculty members who joined the Native Elder Research Center as a "Native Investigator." This program, part of the National Institute of Aging-sponsored Resource Center for Minority Aging Research, is designed to mentor junior faculty. The goal of this two-year program is to prepare American Indian and Alaska Native health professionals for research careers and to develop a deeper appreciation of the health needs of Indian communities.
During the past few years, Dr. Nez Henderson's work has focused on reducing smoking among American Indians. While rates are declining in the general population, American Indians and Alaska Natives have a high prevalence of smoking, and this rate is increasing. The increase in smoking has been accompanied by rising rates of mortality from cardiovascular disease and lung cancer, conditions that are leading causes of death among American Indians and Alaska Natives. Her research findings have been presented at several national conferences including the National Institute on Aging, the Resource Center for Minority Aging Research, the Indian Health Services Research Conference, the Association of American Indian Physicians Annual Conference, and the American Public Health Association Annual Conference.
Dr. Nez Henderson also serves as vice president for the Black Hills Center for American Indian Health, an American Indian nonprofit organization established in 1998 to address the myriad health needs of Northern Plains tribes.