October is Corps Community Month
Published October 30, 2016
ROCKVILLE, MARYLAND – The National Health Service Corps (NHSC) is a federal program that helps alleviate the critical shortage of primary care providers in high need areas across the U.S. and its territories. The program works by offering financial support—in the form of scholarships and loan repayment—to clinicians and health professions students who agree to work in areas that have too few health care providers and are medically underserved. In a testament to the value of the program, two years after their service commitment has been met, the overwhelming majority of NHSC clinicians continue to serve in these high need areas.
NHSC partners with the Indian Health Service (IHS) to encourage more Native Americans from disciplines including behavioral health, dentistry and medicine to join the program, and practice in communities where access to health care is a challenge.
Dr. Lynelle Noisy Hawk, who is Oglala and Hunkpapa Lakota, and the clinical director at the Crow/Northern Cheyenne Hospital in Crow Agency, Montana is among the 10,400 NHSC primary care practitioners providing care to some 10 million people nationwide. She speaks below to how the NHSC has impacted her life personally and professionally:
What are some of the benefits and opportunities of the program?
NHSC was a great opportunity for me as a Native American physician and allowed me to remain employed at an Indian Health Service facility and continue to practice in a Native community. IHS facilities that meet the NHSC site agreement standards and are assigned a Health Profession Shortage Area score are auto-approved for the NHSC and are eligible for all NHSC Programs. The entire application process is online and that made it very convenient. As a loan repayment recipient, I was happy to learn that the loan repayment award was non-taxable and more generous than other loan repayment programs that are available.
How has it impacted you?
I left medical school and residency with a huge debt despite being an Indian Health Scholarship Program recipient. This loan repayment award definitely helped me improve my financial status during my practice. Receiving the award has allowed me to reduce my total monthly loan payments by over half and has reduced my income to debt ratio and improved my credit score—this is something that really benefited me personally as I had planned to purchase a new home.
On a personal level, the most gratifying aspect of my work is to see the gratitude in the faces of my patients after I’ve worked to assist them. For example, I recently assisted a chronic pain patient to get an MRI to assess his back pain. I then advocated for his neurosurgery consult that ultimately led to him getting surgery which was paid by IHS. His goal was to stop depending on narcotic pain medications so he could do his job more effectively and be better engaged in his life. This is truly why I chose a medical career in the IHS; to assist our Native people in providing them with great health care.
Why is it important to you to provide care in the community where you now practice/in a tribal community?
Since I made the decision to become a physician at the age of nine, I always hoped to return to our Native communities to provide health care. I grew up in the IHS system as a patient and experienced what it was like to receive care from a system that was underserved from providers that did not always understand Native American traditions. A cultural disconnect exists. This inspired me to become the change that was needed in this system. As a Native physician, I believe I am bridging that gap as I understand both Native as well as Western cultural norms. And I am able to take the two and combine them to improve the health care that is delivered to our Native patients. The communities I have served in have shaped me as a doctor by grounding me and continuously reminding me why I chose to become a physician. The proudest moment for me as a NHSC physician has been to see my patients receive the care they deserve. I often tell others that although my work has been very difficult, at the end of the day if I know I’ve helped at least one person it is all worth it!
What did you learn from your experience?
I learned that health professionals who want to improve health care in high need and provider shortage areas are inspired to move mountains. They are committed and passionate. They truly make a difference in our patients’ lives, especially when they join forces and share ideas. The NHSC program provides a great opportunity for health care professionals who want to improve health care in communities that need them the most. I would encourage those interested to look into the many benefits of this program. You will not regret your decision to join the NHSC.
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