Yvette Roubideaux, MD, MPH (CFF ’97) delivered the Alvin F. Poussaint, MD Visiting Lecture at Harvard Medical School on Thursday, March 28, 2024. A member of the Commonwealth Fund Fellowship’s first class, Dr. Roubideaux is currently an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Health Systems, Management, and Policy at the Colorado School of Public Health. Under the Obama administration, she was Director of the Indian Health Service (IHS) from 2009-2015—the first Native woman to hold that position. Most recently, Dr. Roubideaux served as Director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Policy Research Center. She served on Harvard’s Board of Overseers from 2018 to 2022 and was elected as a member of the National Academy of Medicine in 2021.

Dr. Roubideaux’s journey to health policy leadership began as a child in Rapid City, South Dakota, where she would face hours-long wait times to be seen at the local IHS clinic. “As a teenager,” she explained in a 2016 interview, “I realized that I had never seen an American Indian physician, and that by becoming a physician, I could do something to help improve health care for American Indian communities.” An enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and descended from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Dr. Roubideaux received her undergraduate (1985) and medical (1989) degrees at Harvard and completed an Internal Medicine residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital before joining, a few years later, the inaugural cohort of the Commonwealth Fund/Harvard Fellowship in Minority Health Policy (renamed later as the Commonwealth Fund Fellowship in Minority Health Policy at Harvard University), earning her master’s in public health at the Harvard School of Public Health in 1997.

During her lecture at HMS, Dr. Roubideaux described working at the San Carlos IHS hospital in eastern Arizona early in her career: “I got to see the challenges of being a physician on a rural Indian reservation somewhat different from my own that also faced similar health challenges.” She later worked as a physician in the Gila River Indian Community, during which time she was able to watch this Tribal Nation take over the management of the health care facility.

The Commonwealth Fund/Harvard Fellowship in Minority Health Policy marked a crucial turning point in Dr. Roubideaux’s career path. After several years working clinically in the rewarding but frustratingly under-resourced IHS health system, Dr. Roubideaux knew she needed a career change. And just at that moment, a brochure for the new Commonwealth Fund Fellowship in Minority Health Policy arrived in the mail. Joining the inaugural cohort of fellows, Dr. Roubideaux found the fellowship “critically important.” The fellowship taught her “how I could help improve AIAN health care as a physician, but also in a policy role.” At this formative stage in her professional journey, she learned that she could undertake this work through “many different roles,” a lesson she has applied throughout her career, moving between the public sector, the nonprofit sector, and academia. Dr. Roubideaux also left the fellowship with an understanding of how crucial data was to policy change. “I surprisingly, suddenly decided—I need to be a researcher! So that I could get the data needed to inform policy for our population.”

A national leader and recognized expert in health equity, public health leadership, medical education, research, and policy, Dr. Roubideaux has long emphasized the crucial importance of tribal sovereignty and having American Indian and Alaska Native leaders at the table in making policy. In her lecture, she related that, while leading the IHS for the Obama administration, she would always insist on the importance of tribal consultation and considering the impact of policies on American Indians and Alaska Natives and Tribal Nations: “I was relentless about this. I might have been kind of a pest.”

Answering questions after her lecture, Dr. Roubideaux offered her advice about choosing a specific area in which to make an impact: “You’re not the only one who’s going to solve all the problems,” she said, noting that one can make big difference by focusing in one area. Before closing, she reflected on bringing young American Indian and Alaska Native people into the health care field through encouragement and providing visible role models. “Sometimes it takes a ‘you know, you could do this’ – and that’s all it takes with some students, because they just haven’t internalized that it’s a possibility.”

By Thomas Dichter

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