Stern Seeks to Increase Health Care for American Indians

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Nicole Stern, MD, a University of Arizona College of Medicine alumna and an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the College, has a lot to be proud of. Not only was the month of November a time nationally to celebrate her American Indian heritage (she is Mescalero Apache), but also she was recently named President-elect of the Association of American Indian Physicians, a national leadership role that she will hold for one year starting in August 2012.

Dr. Stern obtained her undergraduate degree from Stanford University and graduated from the UA College of Medicine in 1998. She specializes in Internal Medicine, and her subspecialty is Sports Medicine. Currently, she is practicing Internal Medicine at the UA Healthcare Clinic at Wilmot, sports medicine at the Alvernon Multispecialty Clinic, and inpatient medicine at The University of Arizona Medical Center – University Campus.

Dr. Stern said her family heritage and background helped to focus her career passions.

“My mother is full-blooded Mescalero Apache, which is a tribe located in south-central New Mexico.”

Dr. Stern explained that she was enrolled in the tribe shortly after birth.

“My father is a Jewish neurologist at the UA College of Medicine. It’s been great to have a physician-father,” she said.

She admitted that neither of her parents pushed her towards a path in medicine. Instead, she came to that conclusion on her own.

“Having the dual heritage, Jewish and Apache, has given me a unique insight into different religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds,” she explained.

Dr. Stern said she was inspired by additional outside forces as well. She admits it was her love for sports that motivated her to pursue a medical education.  

“I was interested in going to medical school to learn a lot more about how to diagnose and treat athletic injuries,” Dr. Stern said., “it was my love for sports and also my commitment to go back and serve the American Indian community”, that led her to pursue medical school.

Her heritage has been an everlasting inspiration, she said.

“As an American Indian physician I felt I could serve as a role model to American Indian students, to encourage them to go into the health field.”

Although Dr. Stern said she does many things to give back to her community, she said American Indians are underrepresented in health care.

“We need to really dramatically increase the number of Native American students at the College of Medicine. We have to work on our recruitment, and we also have to work on our retention. There are very few [American Indian] students in the College now,” she explained. “The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) says that only 0.2 percent of all United States physicians are American Indian/Alaska Native.”

She is dedicated and wants to see these statistics change, she said. For this reason, she will continue to be involved with recruitment and retention activities at the College of Medicine.

Dr. Stern plans to stay involved by attending homecoming activities and continuing to meet with the Native American alumni group. She also currently serves on the admissions committee and teaches internal medicine and sports medicine as an assistant professor of medicine.

Additionally, Dr. Stern gives quarterly sports medicine lectures to 3rd year medical students doing their internal medicine clerkship and she has given talks on various sports medicine as part of  the UA College of Medicine Telemedicine Program.

“The telemedicine talks are televised live to distant, rural sites to improve the education of health care providers living in rural areas in an effort to improve the access to care and type of care that patients wouldn’t normally be able to get because they live in a rural or distant area.”

Outside the College of Medicine, Dr. Stern serves as a team physician for Pima Community College and she has covered football and women’s soccer games.

“I enjoy doing the athletic event coverage. I’m working on developing and expanding my sports medicine clinic so I can see more patients who have orthopedic injures or medical problems that are relevant to athletes,” she said.

While she attempts to grow her clinic, serving those of her heritage will remain at the forefront of her goals.

“I saw relatives on the reservation pass away from perhaps an illness that could have been prevented. I saw my own relatives succumb to diseases that can be prevented and treated. Unfortunately, American Indians do not get the kind of health care that they deserve,” she said. “We need more physicians, native or not, to care for American Indians.”

Dr. Stern is passionate about serving and educating the American Indian population. She said she hopes to increase awareness about the underwhelming amount of American Indian physicians in this country and she will continue to encourage others to serve underrepresented minority communities in need.