Alaska Native people are now more likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer than any other form of cancer, according to the Alaska Native Epidemiology Center in Anchorage, Alaska, one of twelve tribal epidemiology centers that serve the U.S.’ Native American population. The center worked with over 45 years of cancer data on the Alaska Native population to make this determination and share the information with other health care organizations, who collaborated with the center on actions that tripled colorectal cancer screening rates for Alaska Natives between 1993 and 2015.
Monitoring and reporting health data, providing technical assistance to tribal health organizations and supporting initiatives that promote health for Alaska Native people is exactly what Ellen Provost, DO, and her colleagues seek to accomplish. As the center’s director, Dr. Provost analyzes data that is translated into meaningful changes for the health of the Alaska Native population. Following is an edited interview.
What is the function of the Alaska Native Epidemiology Center?
Our center serves tribal health organizations and communities throughout the state of Alaska. Recognized as public health authorities, Tribal Epidemiology Centers (TEC) were established by the Indian Health Service (IHS) to collect tribal health care data, identify common health conditions, and assist tribal organizations in implementing health care services among other functions.
Our parent organization, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), is a multifaceted, comprehensive health care organization that cares for Alaska Native people from 229 federally recognized tribes. As part of ANTHC’s Community Health Services division, we disseminate data, provide technical assistance to tribes, observe current and common health conditions, and develop prevention programs.
What is your role as EpiCenter Director?
I provide oversight, direction, and management of various grants, projects, and requests that come to the Alaska Native Epidemiology Center. I serve as a physician, scientist, coach, and most importantly, a listener and a learner.
It is imperative that we use data collection tools such as our National Cancer Institute/Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (NCI/SEER) Alaska Native Tumor Registry and listen to the Alaska Native people and their leaders in order to help them address their concerns.
We discovered colon cancer is a leading cause of new cases of cancer because we have over 45 years of data about cancer in Alaska Natives. Reported colorectal cancer screening has steadily increased among Alaska Natives over the past two decades, with the screening rate increasing almost threefold between 1993 and 2015. Through generous funding and support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), multiple demonstration projects including patient navigation and mass screening clinics were provided to Alaska Natives.
How did you get involved with the Alaska Native Epidemiology Center?
I’m board certified in preventive medicine and public health, which emphasizes epidemiology, biostatistics, and this idea of the community as the patient. After my residency, I worked for a regional tribal health organization in remote western Alaska for 10 years, which helped me better understand the people and the environment I serve.
When the opportunity arose to apply for this position in 2005, working with a TEC seemed to be a perfect match for my skills and interests. That was more than 11 years ago, and I still learn something new almost every day.
The expanse of the great state of Alaska can be a challenging health care delivery environment. However, our work is greatly valued by our tribal leaders, Alaska tribal health organizations and the people they serve. I am honored to serve the Alaska Native people. It’s been a very rewarding experience.
What advice can you give physicians who aspire to do similar work?
Every TEC is unique in how it achieves its core functions. I suggest contacting the Tribal Epidemiology Center that serves a particular area. Reach out to their director to learn more about what they are doing and what opportunities may exist. You can learn more about each TEC and their objectives here.