Michael WeahkeeRear Admiral Michael Weahkee was confirmed April 21 by the U.S. Senate as director of the Indian Health Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He has served in various roles at IHS since 1998, and was appointed principal deputy director in 2017. IHS provides health care services to 2.6 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in hospitals, clinics and other settings. The coronavirus pandemic has created new challenges within American Indian and Alaska Native populations, but health successes point to a hopeful future.

Q: What have been the primary public health needs for American Indians and Alaska Natives?

I’ve had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout Indian country, both rural and urban locations, and I think that some issues really do bubble up to the top. Water and sanitation systems is a big one. Putting in clean water systems, sewer systems, solid waste disposal.

And I think really if you take a social determinants of health look across Indian country, many of the items really are very much present. Adequate stable housing has been a major concern, as well as transportation issues.

American Indians and Alaska Natives have long experienced lower health status when compared to other Americans. Heart disease and cancers, diabetes and unintentional injuries are the leading causes of death for our population. And of course, we have a lower life expectancy than the U.S. general population, about five and a half years less.

Continue reading this story from the July 2020 issue of The Nation's Health.