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Indian Health Service Dermatologist: ‘I Saw a Real Need to Be of Service’

After completing his dermatology residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 2010, Christopher Bengson, MD, MHS, then a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Public Health Service, accepted an offer to become a full-time dermatologist at Phoenix Indian Medical Center (PIMC) in Arizona, fulfilling a long desire to provide care for underserved individuals. Thirteen years later, Captain Bengson is still providing dermatologic care as the only full-time dermatologist in the entire Indian Health Service (IHS), the federal health program for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

As one of the largest hospitals in the IHS system, PIMC provides direct health care services to a population of more than 156,000, including tribal members from The Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, and the San Lucy District of the Tohono O’odham Nation, the Tonto Apache Tribe, the Yavapai-Apache Indian Tribe, and the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe. Dr. Bengson also cares for tribal members who travel to PIMC from as far away as Washington State and Hawaii to receive dermatologic care.

Dr. Christopher Bengson of Phoenix Indian Medical Center (right) and his longtime colleague Tashiya Whitey, CMA.

“There is a disproportionate number of Native American patients that come in with severe psoriasis, hidradenitis suppurativa, and dissecting cellulitis of the scalp compared to the general U.S. population, and I’ve been surprised by how many have nonmelanoma skin cancers and autoimmune connective tissue diseases like lupus, as the prevailing sentiment among his patients is that Native people do not get skin cancer,” he said in an interview. “Those who travel great distances are those who come see me for the surgical removal of skin cancers.”

Interesting cases he’s seen in his nearly 13 years on the job include Epstein-Barr virus-induced NK/T-cell lymphoma, anaplastic large cell lymphoma, subcutaneous panniculitis-like T-cell lymphoma, and necrobiotic xanthogranuloma, “tumors that have generally gone to tertiary care facilities for treatment, but we’ve been able to manage here.”

In 2017, Dr. Bengson was appointed as the IHS’s first chief clinical consultant for dermatology, a post that provides him the opportunity to interface with Native people and IHS-affiliated clinicians nationwide regarding skin-related questions and concerns. As the only full-time dermatologist employed by the IHS, he also views his role as providing an opportunity to change the perception that some Native Americans may still hold about federally delivered health care, “where there may be a cultural distrust of government health care in indigenous communities, driven by generational historical traumas that have come out of boarding schools, population relocation to desolate and isolated areas of the country, and contracts that were simply not honored,” he explained.

“While none of these issues are new, what has been great for me is that I’m going on 13 years of being at the same facility, and I’ve treated family members, their kids, and even their grandkids. In some ways the primary barrier of continuity of care – at least at PIMC – has been eliminated by me just being here for a long period of time.”

In Dr. Bengson’s opinion, efforts to improve access to attract more Native Americans to dermatology are laudable, including the American Academy of Dermatology’s Pathways Program, which aims to increase the number of dermatology residents from Black, Latino, and indigenous communities from approximately 100 residents to 250 residents by 2027, or by over 150%, through community-based engagement strategies that begin in high school.

“To have an objective benchmark is encouraging,” he said. However, he encourages dermatology residency program directors to rethink how they recruit Native Americans, many of whom hail from rural areas. “If you’re recruiting primarily from urban settings, you’re very unlikely to include Native Americans as a larger group of minorities,” he said. “When you look at the number of department chairs who are Native American, it’s on the order of 0.1%, [so] it’s no surprise that dermatologists coming out of a residency program don’t want to go to reservations to provide dermatologic care. We pay a lot of lip service to mentorship programs and things like that, but you need a mentor who follows you through the process – and it’s a long process.”

He believes that residency program directors should reconsider the metrics used to select dermatology residents and should consider the degree of adversity that a Native American applicant may have had to overcome to make it to the residency selection committees.

Despite obstacles to attracting young Native Americans to a career in medicine, Dr. Bengson sees encouraging signs ahead. Some of his Native American patients and family members of patients have enrolled in medical school and have asked to rotate with him at PIMC at the premedical and medical student level. “Some have moved on, not necessarily to dermatology, but to other specialties and careers in health care,” he said. “When you have such high rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease, and stroke in Native American communities, nodulocystic acne and other skin conditions that are not threats to life and limb become less of a priority. We need to get more people in the pipeline to deliver medical services even if it may not be in dermatology, as the need for dedicated health care professionals is so great across all disciplines.”

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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