By Spero M. Manson, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of Public Health and Psychiatry; Director, Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health; and The Colorado Trust Chair in American Indian Health and Associate Dean for Research at the Colorado School of Public Health, University of Colorado Denver
Over the past 20 years, as research on alcohol, drug, and mental health disorders has advanced, scientific inquiry among American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) people has shifted from a primary focus on describing the prevalence of such problems to explorations of ways to address well-documented health disparities.
One example involves detecting and managing depression and subsequent alcohol and substance abuse, risk of suicide, and, more recently, trauma among patients in large primary care settings operated by tribal health programs. In 2001, the Southcentral Foundation’s Primary Care Center in Anchorage, Alaska, initiated Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral for Treatment (SBIRT) among Alaska Native patients age 18 and older.1 Their efforts, which integrated masters-level behavioral health clinicians within the care teams, demonstrated that such evidence-based practices could be tailored to this population in scientifically sound and clinically meaningful ways.2 Over a 5-year period beginning in 2004, 55 percent of the 8,000 patients who scored positive for alcohol use disorder agreed to follow-up treatment. Thanks to those results, the state of Alaska authorized Medicaid reimbursement for SBIRT, leading to the service becoming fully self-sustainable. This approach has been expanded to other tribal primary care settings in Alaska and in rural, reservation, and urban clinics in the lower 48 states. It now includes AI/AN youth ages 12 to 17 and covers other conditions, notably suicide risk and trauma.3