Building a healthy future

April 16, 2024
Person standing talks to a group sitting at a rectangular table.

Adalberto Renteria, MD, gives a presentation at a Let's Taco 'Bout Cancer event through the Cancer Center Office of Community Outreach and Engagement on the Pascua Yaqui reservation.

Adalberto Renteria, MD: Forging collaborations for community health


If you could imagine the ideal physician to serve as the medical director for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and lead the University of Arizona Cancer Center community advisory board, that vision would culminate in Adalberto Renteria, MD 

“I'm very excited that, in my short experience with the Cancer Center, I believe they've made a commitment to trying to have a great relationship with the Pascua Yaqui Tribe,” Dr. Renteria said, “and there's more opportunities for collaboration.” 

The family medical doctor is committed to building a strong healthcare system that specializes in cancer care, prevention and education for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, which is spread throughout five communities: New Pascua, a reservation southwest of Tucson; Old Pascua in downtown Tucson; Barrio Libre in South Tucson; Marana, northwest of Tucson; and Guadalupe, a southeast suburb of Phoenix. 

“Dr. Renteria has served as the inaugural UACC CAB chair over the past two years,” said Monica Yellowhair, PhD, interim associate director for UArizona Cancer Center’s Office of Community Outreach and Engagement. “He has provided so much guidance and experience as we developed our inaugural CAB. His leadership has helped set the tone and expectations of our CAB members’ roles and responsibilities.” 

Dr. Renteria said serving on the CAB is important to him because there are populations in Arizona, particularly those who are underrepresented such as Latin American and Native American people, who have poor access to cancer care. 

 “I come from those communities,” Dr. Renteria said. “My background is I'm a son of farmworkers and the first one to graduate from high school. But I have also had some really good medical training and I have been a medical administrator running systems.” 

Dedicated to serving others 

At 7 years old, the future physician and his family moved from Jalisco, Mexico, to Napa Valley, California, where his father managed a vineyard. While working in vineyards himself, the younger Renteria did well in school and attended medical school after graduation. In 1987, Dr. Renteria received his Doctor of Medicine from the University of California School of Medicine in Los Angeles. He completed his internship and family practice residency at UCLA-affiliated hospitals.  

Dr. Renteria now has more than 30 years of experience and has served as a medical administrator, clinical educator, chief of staff, medical director, and professor. His teaching appointments have included the University of California San Francisco, University of California, Davis, Stanford University, the University of Arizona, and the Arizona School of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine teaching programs.  

His dedication to integrative medicine includes a fellowship in integrative medicine from the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, which he completed in 2008. 

Improving the Cancer Center CAB 

“The University Arizona Cancer Center is a very important institution for southern Arizona and the state in general,” Dr. Renteria said. “They're a high-quality provider of the latest cancer care.” 

Dr. Renteria said one of his goals was to use his experience on other boards to increase the CAB’s efficiency. 

“Being a physician, I have the skills to talk to our academic researchers. Being a family practice physician, I can also speak to community members in general,” he said. “And again, because I come from communities that have poor access, I'm able to articulate the needs for that on the board.”  

He said with collaborative approval from the administration, he restructured the board and increased the responsibilities of the board members, focusing on a high level of participation. He also structured the new member interview process to include requirements for participation as part of the acceptance process.  

“An important result of that is a very high functioning workgroup that gets results and creates strategy for the Cancer Center,” Dr. Renteria said. 

Dr. Yellowhair said he is always willing to help and share his expertise as a medical director and respected community member.  

“Dr. Renteria has been instrumental in the UACC’s ongoing partnership with the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. Under his guidance and role as the Medical Director of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe (PYT), we were able to establish a five-year partnership with the PYT Health Department and the UACC to support a cancer patient navigator within the Tribe,” Dr. Yellowhair said. 

According to the National Cancer Institute, a cancer patient navigator helps guide a patient through the health care system.  

Dr. Renteria, in partnership with other Pascua Yaqui Tribal CAB members, assisted with the upcoming launch of the UArizona Cancer Center’s Community Assessment of Southern Arizona (CASA) survey with the Tribe that focuses on cancer health-related topics. 

Supporting a healthy, autonomous tribe 

In addition to serving as their medical director since 2005, Dr. Renteria has been the family practice doctor for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe on the reservation in southern Arizona, South Tucson, since 2002. 

“Native Americans are usually the ones that are most affected by cancer rates and cancer burden,” he said. “But they are still in the process of historically creating their own destiny. What I try to have the Cancer Center understand is that they have to participate in a partnership.”  

Dr. Renteria said that because of their history, it is critical for universities or other institutions who partner with the tribes to ensure that each tribe has autonomy and control of its own healthcare programs and research as a sovereign nation with final approval in how studies and data are used for its benefit. 

As an example, Dr. Renteria points to the Pascua Yaqui Tribe-University of Arizona Microcampus that launched in 2021. On the reservation, the microcampus offers tribal members a bachelor’s degree, several professional certificates and a master’s program, as well as other lifelong learning programs. 

“I think President [Robert C.] Robbins was far ahead in his thinking in this specific area with Native Americans, specifically to have Native Americans have access to higher educational opportunities without leaving the reservation,” Dr. Renteria said.  

Dr. Renteria said he would like to see a similar model occur that develops physicians and other healthcare workers from within the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. His hope is to one day collaborate with a new generation of physicians, healthcare workers and research scientists plucked directly from local communities to work with the tribe. 

“For me, the important term to understand is what is today called social determinants of care,” Dr. Renteria said. “If you understand those, then you have a shot of understanding how to deal with specific cancer or chronic disease.” 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grown, work, live and age that affect their health outcomes. 

“I'm a family practitioner, and it really doesn't matter what your ethnic background is,” he said. “People have a cultural context of how they expect to be treated as a patient, how they view disease and how they view treatment.”