Dr. Phillip L. Smith, M.D., MPH, earned his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Utah and began his career with the Public Health Service in 1978.
He was awarded a fellowship to study at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, in Bethesda, Maryland, where he earned his Master’s of Public Health degree. Dr. Smith began his career with the National Health Services Corp, working with migrant clinics, and in 1983, he joined the Indian Health Service as Service Unit Director and Family Practice clinical provider at the Tuba City Indian Hospital, in Arizona.
He had a long career working with IHS and he found time to volunteer, treating the Navajo people in San Juan County for many years, even after Utah Navajo Health System, Inc. was established in 2000.
“I started with the old program and worked with them for a while back in the 80’s, and left. When I was working for Indian Health Services, when UNHS was established, I used to come out and volunteer for two or three weeks at a time. This was back in the 2000’s and even back in the 90’s before UNHS was founded. I’d spend a week covering for people in Navajo Mountain, but mainly in Montezuma Creek is where I would work when people took vacation,” Dr. Smith explained recently. “Dr. (Val) Jones (UNHS Medical Director) said ‘we’ll always have an opening for you if you want to come back.’ In fact I was volunteering here when they had the celebration to open the Monument Valley Clinic.”
Not long after the Monument Valley Community Health Center opened, Dr. Smith began working as a provider for UNHS in that facility, and he continues to serve UNHS patients today. But one of Dr. Smith’s primary passions for over forty years has been his work with the Association of American Indian Physicians, an organization that was started in 1972 by Dr. Everett Rhoades MD. Dr. Rhoades is a Kiowa, who became the first American Indian Director of IHS.
“Dr. Everett Rhoades was a giant among indian physicians, and sort of my hero as well,” Dr. Smith said. “He was very interested in native people becoming physicians and how they could do that. So he managed to get Native Americans he knew, who were physicians, and developed an organization called the Association of American Indian Physicians.
“The purpose of the organization is to work with local schools, starting very early in junior high, to get indian students interested in the sciences,” he continued. “The idea is to get them interested early on, then when they get into high school they will have a foundation that will allow them to be successful when they get into college. They will major in sciences and then matriculate into medicalschool or into the health professions. Our initial purpose was to try and make indian students physicians, and then later, because the health services is really composed of many other types of employment, we just said health professions. They could become an administrator, or a nurse, or a Dentist or become a Physicians Assistant or a Radiology Tech and what not.”
Dr. Smith said members of AAIP worked in an advocacy program with the government, and the tribes, to establish scholarships. Students who studied the sciences in college would be able to go to school and get their scholarship because they happen to be in the sciences, or they were pre-med or pre-dental or pre-veterinarian or pre-pharmacy.
“Some of our UNHS PA’s went through that program,” Dr. Smith added. “Revina (Talker) went through that program, and Shyrlan Beck and even Fred Riggs went through a long time ago. And our dentists, Crystal Sepaquaptewa went through the IHS scholarship program. It paid for her dental school at Creighton and she does a two-year payback.” That program came about in the late 70’s, Dr. Smith said, and now sixty to seventy percent of all Native Americans, who have become physicians, have used that particular program to pay for their medical education, or their undergraduate education. AAIP also sponsors workshops and trainings for high school students throughout the year, like one this month at Georgetown University, near Washington D.C. High school students stay in the university’s dorms and hear speakers talk about what is required to be a college student. They listen to Indian Physicians talk about their experiences in college and in their careers to help teach what the medical profession entails. These physicians talk to students about how they can work in the hospitals and be of service to their community.
“The idea is, we’d like them to come back to the reservation and into the Indian community and work,” Dr. Smith stressed. “rather than settle in a plastic surgery residency or practice in Los Angeles or Manhattan. I think we’ve been fairly successful.”
The AAIP national conference in July is where members gather to rekindle a real camaraderie among their ranks. Dr. Smith noted that often times the Indian student is the only Native American in the college, the only person in the medical school who is native.
He said students coming from a setting like Monument Valley and going to school in Boston, have quite a culture shock and they’re often times going to school with students that are very affluent and want to do things. These students think nothing about taking a trip to Nepal. And the native student is wondering how to pay for rent next month.
“We provide mentoring services for these medical students,” he continued. “I’ve been on the executive board and have been involved as a member for many years. I went to their first meeting when I was a medical student in the early 70’s, when they first began, and they were a great support to me. Not so much financially, but from the standpoint where they were saying, ‘Phil, you can do this. We’ve done it and we know there’s some challenges. We know you don’t have any money. We know you’re from a real impoverished state in your home and we know you don’t get any support from your family. You can do it.
“I got to be really good friends with these Indian physicians and particularly the greatest influence was Thomas Whitecloud, an Orthopedic Surgeon in Louisiana. He was a professor there. He would always send me a card, now and then, saying, ‘Phil, keep it up.’ Interestingly enough, at the time this was happening, we only had one Navajo physician and that was Dr. Taylor McKenzie. Now there are about 200 Navajo physicians, but some of the older ones are retiring.”
Overall, there are about 800 Indian physicians across the nation and about 200 dentists, Dr. Smith reported. He said statistics indicate the number of Native Americans, who have matriculated into medical school has not changed in twenty-five years. The numbers for Hispanics, African Americans and women have increased. In fact, almost half of all medical students in America are women, he noted. Many Native American students want to study computer science, engineering or law.
“They’ve discovered there are other things besides medicine.”
However Dr. Smith still believes that AAIP is playing an important role in enlisting young Native American students into the healthcare professions, and is improving health care among the Native American people, including UNHS patients.