The recent observance in May of National Arthritis Awareness Month offered us a chance to reflect on a sizable component of the NIAMS mission area. Arthritis impacts the lives of nearly 60 million Americans. However, a recent conversation with David Wilson, Ph.D., director of NIH’s Tribal Health Research Office, reminded me that arthritis hits some communities harder than others.
As we strive to improve arthritis treatment options for everyone, we also recognize our obligation to specifically attend to the needs of underserved communities. American Indian and Alaska Native populations have some of the shortest life expectancies in the United States. To address this challenge, the NIH created the Native American Centers for Health (NARCH), led by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS.) NIAMS has proudly partnered with the NARCH program. Oklahoma rheumatologist and NIAMS grantee Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, shared some insights with me about her own experiences with the program.
James, a fifth-generation Oklahoman, sees patients from a number of federally recognized tribes in her state. Some of her work involves partnerships with the Cherokee and Chickasaw nations, two of the larger tribes in Oklahoma.
“I have a long-standing commitment to improving the health of all Oklahomans,” said James, who is a past member of the NIAMS Advisory Council. “We've been part of NARCH for 16 years and NIAMS has been very supportive of our projects.”
Through NARCH, James helps train Native health care providers in rheumatology, a specialty that can be hard to find in indigenous communities. In addition to seeing patients, James is also part of a research effort to better understand rheumatic diseases among the nearly 40 tribes of Oklahoma.
“This is so important because many rheumatic diseases are more common and more severe among Native communities, so we see more rheumatoid arthritis and lupus nephritis,” she explained. “Systemic sclerosis is also heavily overrepresented in the Choctaw nation, as well as in some other tribal communities.”
James and I also share a passion for helping to develop the next generation of researchers and clinicians. Her work, along with the work of other NARCH participants, has helped several Native researchers receive their own independent NIH funding. We know that scientists of American Indian and Alaska Native heritage are severely underrepresented in the research community, so we are excited to welcome more into the fold.
I deeply appreciate James’ work in and with Native communities, along with other rheumatologists across the nation who seek to ease the effects of arthritis. We have a long way to go, but as we continue to feed the research pipeline, the future holds tremendous potential.