New MSU doctoral program aims to address health inequities in indigenous and rural communities |

Montana has faced many health care challenges existing long before the pandemic, and historically indigenous and rural communities bore the brunt of those health inequities.

Montana State University is rolling out a unique program to help identify and understand the health needs for rural and Indigenous Montanans.

A new Doctor of Philosophy in Indigenous and Rural Health program aims to address the health needs in these communities, as identified by the students in the program, according to program director Dr. Vanessa Simonds.

Dr. Vanessa Simonds is the program director for MSU’s new doctoral program for indigenous and rural health. 

“We want students to do real, practical research that pertains to their communities,” Simonds said. “(The program will) strengthen research in indigenous and rural health.”

The program is unique in that it was built with resources and expertise that were already available on campus, resulting in a multidisciplinary model.

Faculty members from the College of Agriculture, the Mark and Robyn Jones College of Nursing, Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship and the College of Letters and Science will all be teaching courses and advising students.

During program development, Simonds and her colleagues brought in members from the community to help design the coursework, again making the program distinctive from others in the country.

“The program was designed for people like them, so we talked about their needs,” Simonds said, adding that a remote learning option was key to serving those in indigenous and rural communities.

The remote track allows students to keep their jobs and stay entrenched in the communities that will eventually benefit from the findings. It makes the work more meaningful to the students, Simonds said.

Building a sense of community for both in-person and remote students was also at the forefront of development. Postgraduate programs are often known as high stress environments that can be very isolating. Simonds wants to avoid that as much as possible in the new program.

Recent doctoral graduates were interviewed during the design process to assess their needs during postgraduate work. As a result, a “cultural of wellness” plan was developed.

“We want to prioritize community and create an environment where faculty and students can support each other,” Simonds said.

Rose Bear Don’t Walk plans to submit her application for the remote program by the end of February.

The remote option is meaningful to Bear Don’t Walk not only because she recently moved to North Carolina, but because it aligns with cultural ideas of wellness within indigenous communities.

The core of indigenous ideas of wellness focus on connectivity, Bear Don’t Walk said.

“We’re connected with the land, culture, language, family, friends and relationships,” Bear Don’t Walk said.

Bear Don’t Walk got her masters of science at University of Montana where her research focused on indigenous concepts of what it means to be healthy. Indigenous practices have a preventative focus and a whole body focus when it comes to health, which differs significantly from western medicine.

The opportunity to address health care delivery issues through an indigenous lens will open the door to improving health outcomes and longevity in indigenous communities.

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By Betty C. Giordano

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