Margaret Moss PhD, JD, RN

Margaret Moss, PhD, JD, RN, a prominent American Indian nurse scientist, lives in the shadow of tragedy.

Her mother died of complications from diabetes; her sister died of liver failure; her brother was killed in a motorcycle accident; and another brother died of HIV/AIDS. Her brother-in-law was murdered, and several aunts and uncles died prematurely.

It’s almost as if her family is cursed. Moss, in fact, believes it is—by a health care system that fails to adequately serve American Indians. Moss is not alone. American Indians, she notes, have shorter life expectancies than other Americans and experience disproportionately high rates of death from diseases such as cirrhosis and diabetes, motor vehicle accidents and other unintentional injuries, and assault, homicide, and suicide, according to the Indian Health Service, the federal health program for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

“I started putting it together, and our family experiences were actually falling in line with Indian Health Service statistics,” she says. “It kind of shocked me.”

But it wasn’t until Moss became a nurse that she began to fully understand how the “system” undermines the health, and the lives, of native people. That experience set Moss on a journey to explore ways to provide culturally sensitive long-term health care for American Indians. She earned her doctorate in nursing in 2000 and her JD in 2006—and in so doing became the only American Indian in the country who holds both degrees.

In 2008, Moss received a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health Policy Fellowship and worked for the Senate Committee on Aging, where she drew attention to health disparities and worked to coordinate federal funding for Alzheimer’s disease.

Now associate professor and coordinator of the nursing management, policy, and leadership program at Yale University School of Nursing, Moss is working to raise awareness about aging and health disparities faced by American Indians. In the fall of 2014, she accepted an American Fulbright Scholar Award to study aboriginal health in Montreal, Quebec. For her scholarship, she is undertaking a legal analysis of census and health laws and is conducting qualitative research to better understand health disparities affecting aboriginal people.

Moss is also currently writing the first textbook on American Indian health and nursing and expects it to be published in early 2015. “I’m hoping it will be picked up by nursing schools so students can get first-hand information about American Indian health,” Moss says. “What nursing students learn now about the subject could be summed up in one paragraph.”