USPHS Looks Back on a Rich History in Indian Health

In honor of November, American Indian and Native Alaskan History Month, the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps celebrates its storied history with the Indian Health Service over the years.

In 1911, the USPHS conducted the Nation’s first study of the status of Indian health, finding that American Indians on reservations were dying from infectious diseases brought over by Europeans. This study led to the first funding by Congress for American Indian Health.

Previously, there was no federal mandate to address American Indian Health, and only reservations near military forts were provided the limited care military physicians could offer.

Based on the USPHS study, and later studies by the Institute for Government Research in 1928 and the Hoover Commission in 1948, the fledgling Indian health program was transferred from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to the USPHS. In July of 1955, the Indian Health Service (IHS) was officially established, reporting to the Surgeon General.

James R. Shaw, a Commissioned Corps physician who was assigned as a public health advisor to the BIA in 1952, became the first IHS Director in 1955. He focused on three things: 1) improving the quality of clinical care, 2) expanding prevention programs, and 3) bridging the gap between the Tribal members who needed care and the health facilities to provide it.

“The USPHS remains committed to the advancement of Indian Health,” said Deputy Surgeon General, RADM Boris Lushniak. “The Indian Health Service is an organization which does great work, and Commissioned Corps Officers will continue to be right on the front‐lines with them working to solve the public health needs of the American Indian community.”

Under his leadership, extensive recruitment of health professionals; the remodeling of health facilities; and the establishment of clinical laboratories, radiological services, and surgical teams were undertaken. Funds were made available to provide needed care for American Indian people. Services included immunizations, prenatal and baby care, and environmental sanitation.

Over the following decades the IHS undertook many initiatives making key advances in American Indian Health. Leadership and consistent support from Commissioned Corps officers helped the organization focus on local management skills as well as training in nursing, nutrition, and environmental health on reservations.

The 1980s in particular were marked by great increases in funding for American Indian health programs, and movement towards greater Tribal involvement and its status grew. In 1988 the IHS was elevated from a Bureau within the USPHS to an Agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

In 2009, Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, the current IHS Director was appointed by President Obama to head the Indian Health Service.

Although the Agency is no longer led by a Corps officer and now reports directly in to the Secretary of HHS, there is still a strong synergistic working relationship between the two organizations.

With 2041 officers, the IHS is currently the largest employer of Commissioned Corps officers, IHS and USPHS leaders continue to foster the longstanding collaboration sharing the common goal of improved health of the American Indian.