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AHC Gamechanger: Michelle Johnson-Jennings

As a Choctaw tribal member, Michelle Johnson-Jennings, Ph.D., has devoted her career to giving back to the American Indian community. Each day, she looks at the health disparities that plague the population and works fervently to bridge the gaps.

After receiving her doctorate in counseling and training as an integrated primary care psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she put her efforts into full gear by founding and co-directing the College of Pharmacy’s Research for Indigenous Community Health Center on the University of Minnesota-Duluth campus, where she is an assistant professor.

With the help of RICH co-director, Melissa Walls, Ph.D., assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School, Johnson-Jennings has created a strong partnership between the University and Native populations. The team provides a place for people to openly express their health care concerns and partner in specialized research endeavors.

Johnson-Jennings focuses her research on prescription drug abuse trends and the different kinds of prevention tactics and treatments available, especially ones that remain respectful to the community’s needs. As she points out, not everyone wants to adopt western medicine.

“Each community has its own cultural health beliefs. Our research revolves around being aware of them, partnering and implementing culturally-tailored interventions,” Johnson-Jennings said. “Through identifying culturally appropriate interventions and promoting existing preventative factors, communities can increase health outcomes and they can prevent abuse and heal from within.”

The Center has also shown Johnson-Jennings the lack of understanding between healthcare providers and tribal members who still practice traditional medicine.

“A major goal of ours is to encourage an understanding between more traditional American Indians in terms of medicine and healthcare providers,” Johnson-Jennings said. “Unfortunately, the road has historically been paved with mistrust, though change is occurring.”

To help address this complicated issue, she meets with both parties to hear their opinions of one another’s interests and uses the data to build a trusting relationship.

Through a combination of culturally tailored interventions and improving communication between health care professionals and American Indians, Johnson-Jennings is giving a voice to her community and bridging health care gaps. As she continues to foster mutually beneficial relationships with local tribes and keeps the well-being of all American Indian communities as her focus, Michelle Johnson-Jennings is truly a Gamechanger.

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