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In Pursuit of Better Care

Improving the Future of Native Health Care

Shelby Koch of the Choctaw Nation is pursuing a master’s degree in Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma to better understand Native cultures and ultimately provide Native Peoples a higher quality of health care.

Native Americans born today have a life expectancy that is five and a half years less than the rest of the U.S. population. There has long been a disparity between the health status of Native Americans and the rest of the population. The array of factors contributing to this are complex and require unique perspectives to find novel solutions.

This is the problem that Shelby Koch, a University of Oklahoma Native American Studies graduate hopes her own perspective can help solve.

A member of the Choctaw Nation, Koch first acquired an interest in Native health through the Māhina Program with the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute at the University of Washington. Here, she traveled to New Zealand for two months to learn about indiginous research methodologies and working alongside organizations working to apply an indiginous worldview to their health care practices.

From there, Koch set her sights on medical school, but a desire to better understand Native culture lead her to OU.

“In med school you learn the techniques and skills,” she explains, “but I think that my Native American Studies degree is going to give me a strong interpersonal foundation – understanding the complex dynamics of native tribes –for treating health conditions of native patients.”

The Department of Native American Studies at OU leads the nation  in its commitment to using distinctly Native American perspectives that place the sovereignty of Native nations and the cultures of Native peoples at the center of academic study. It is from this perspective that Shelby hopes to improve health care for Native Americans.

“My mind was pretty much blown by the research methodology,” Koch said, reflecting on her experience at OU so far.

She has found consistent inspiration from her professors and classmates and their commitment to giving back to Native communities. Being the first of her family to pursue a graduate-level degree, Koch has received the care and guidance of her professor and department chair, Amanda Cobb-Greetham, Ph.D.

This support has led Shelby to a focused research study on the biases that people perceive are directed against them when they visit a doctor. Native Americans often face unique obstacles to receiving the care they need, which can sometimes go unseen.

“I know that a lot of my Native friends dress up and present themselves in a specific manner when they go to the doctor, so that they feel the doctor will listen to them and take them seriously,” Koch explains.

She hopes this research will shine a light on barriers contributing Native American health care problems that are not as tangible as others.

Koch believes her time at OU will prove invaluable to her pursuit of a medical degree, as it will help her to understand the unique cultural backgrounds and potential challenges faced by Native American patients when they visit the doctor’s office.

“I’m a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, and I’ve received quite a bit of help from them paying for schooling, and I see this as a way to give back to the community that has supported me.”

To learn more about the Department of Native American Studies, please visit