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Researchers Look to Expand Palliative Care on Three SD Reservations

Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Health Board, Jackie Hendry, SDSU

Palliative care can relieve symptoms of serious illnesses like cancer. But despite high cancer rates on reservations, this specialized care is difficult to access.

A research partnership among South Dakota State University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Avera Health and others is working to develop palliative care options on three of South Dakota’s reservations. The research includes work with community members to ensure culturally-appropriate care.

The five-year research project is focusing on palliative care options for the Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Cheyenne River reservations.

Tinka Duran is the director of prevention programs with the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board—another of the project’s collaborators. Duran is a member of the Rosebud tribe and says there’s a stark need for this specialized care on reservations.

“American Indians in the great plains region have higher cancer death rates in the United States compared to non-Hispanic whites when it comes to various cancers like lung, colorectal, breast and cervical cancer. And again, we are getting diagnosed at late stages so it makes it very hard to treat.”

The researchers agree non-Native doctors need to recognize cultural differences in the communities they serve.

J.R. LaPlante is the Tribal Relations Director with Avera Health and a member of the Cheyenne River tribe. He says Lakota people have a more holistic perspective on health.

“And so in palliative care what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to protect and watch out for the dignity of the whole person throughout the continuum of care. I think that’s how this becomes relevant with regard to the Lakota concept of what wellness is about.”

Researchers will consult elders and other community members on the different reservations throughout the project. Mary Isaacson is an associate professor in the SDSU College of Nursing in Rapid City. She says palliative care is not one-size-fits-all.

“And what we may find is that what is created for Pine Ridge may look a little different than what’s created in Rosebud and may also look a little different that what’s created for Cheyenne River.”

Isaacson says the patient and family members need to be the true leaders of palliative care, and healthcare professionals need to listen.  

Regional Health supports Education and Healthcare reporting on SDPB.