Miller School Launches Heart Health Initiative in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Article Summary
  • The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine is partnering with the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) Department of Health on a program that trains USVI natives in cardiovascular research.
  • The USVI is enduring a serious healthcare workforce shortage, with 40% of its healthcare positions unfilled.
  • The Cardiovascular Research Empowerment Workforce (CREW) initiative is a summer fellowship program for scholars who want to return to the USVI as healthcare workers.

Black people constitute nearly three-quarters of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) population. Its adverse cardiovascular outcomes are among the worst in the United States.

With more than 40% of its health care positions unfilled and the majority of providers from outside the USVI, culturally appropriate health care is a challenge.

To address these issues, public health experts with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine have teamed up with a Miller School alumnus and the USVI Department of Health to create the Cardiovascular Research Empowerment Workforce (CREW) initiative.

The Miller School's Dr. Sonjia Kenya speaks from the podium at a press conference
CREW principal investigator Sonjia Kenya, Ph.D., says the program will support physician-scientists from the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“This grant supports a summer fellowship to train diverse scholars in cardiovascular research and embed them into the USVI Department of Health, so they develop a strong connection with the USVI health care infrastructure and will want to come back after college to work within it,” said Sonjia Kenya, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine and public health at the Miller School and CREW’s principal investigator.

Dr. Kenya is launching the program with Miller School alum Tai Hunte-Ceasar, M.D., MSPH, chief medical officer, USVI Department of Health and founding dean of the University of the Virgin Islands Donald Sussman School of Medicine. Dr. Hunte-Ceasar trained under Dr. Kenya before receiving her master’s degree in public health from the Miller School in 2009.

A Critical Time for USVI Heart Health

Dr. Kenya and Dr. Hunte-Caesar unveiled CREW January 29 during joint a press conference at the Government House in St. Thomas. USVI Lieutenant Governor Tregenza Roach, Esq., USVI Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion and Dr. David Hall, president of the University of the Virgin Islands, also spoke at the press conference.

“Today’s announcement of our partnership with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine could not have come at a more critical time,” said Commissioner Encarnacion. “Cardiovascular disease remains the number one cause of death and we must find a way to address it. The USVI-UM partnership is a significant step toward this endeavor. Our partnership is about addressing the health of our territory. It is about health equity and access to care here at home. And it is about beginning to rebuild a responsive and resilient health care workforce.”

From left, Dr. Janis Valmond, deputy commissioner for health promotion and disease prevention, VI Department of Health, Dr. Sonjia Kenya, Dr. David Hall, Lt. Governor Tregenza A. Roach, Esq.,USVI Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion, Dr. Tai Hunte-Caesar and Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo.
From left: Dr. Janis Valmond, deputy commissioner for health promotion and disease prevention, USVI Department of Health; Dr. Sonjia Kenya; Dr. David Hall; Lt. Governor Tregenza A. Roach, Esq.; USVI Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion; Dr. Tai Hunte-Caesar and Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo.

Funded with a five-year, $154,000 grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, CREW recruits undergraduate students from the USVI to participate in eight weeks of extensive research training to prepare and inspire them to pursue medical and/or research careers in cardiovascular medicine. The first cohort of students will begin in June of 2024.

“This collaboration marks a significant moment that unites the expertise of our Miller School public health experts with the outstanding achievements of an esteemed alumnus, who has used her medical school education to make significant contributions in her home territory,” said Henri R. Ford, M.D., M.H.A., dean and chief academic officer of the Miller School. “I look forward to seeing the program’s success in training a new generation of culturally competent physicians and scientists who are prepared to tackle important public health challenges.”

Partnering with the University of the Virgin Islands, a historically Black university, the initiative will enroll 10 students each summer for the next five years.

Partnership Exemplifies Similar Health Care Visions

“This partnership is very consistent with the University’s overall goal that we have had for quite some time and I would argue it is a step in that direction,” said Dr. Hall, who hopes to establish a robust medical school focused on training, research and service.

From left, Dr. Tai Hunte-Caesar, Dr. Sonjia Kenya, Dr. David Hall
Dr. Tai Hunte-Caesar (left, with Dr. David Hall and Dr. Sonjia Kenya) hopes the CREW program will help fill the U.S. Virgin Islands’ primary care and specialty care physician void.

He emphasized the collaborative nature of the project and expressed confidence that the partnership will propel the university forward in achieving its goals.

CREW will teach students to cardiovascular health disparity research skills under the mentorship of Miller School and USVI Department of Health faculty and staff.

“CREW speaks to the University of Miami’s long-established legacy as an important hemispheric institution,” said Yiannis Chatzizisis, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Miller School. “Creating partnerships that support and strengthen the health infrastructure of our neighbors in the Caribbean is a win for everyone.”

Dr. Kenya conceptualized the program “with the goal of building more physician-scientists like Dr. Hunte-Ceasar,” a USVI native.

“When I heard we could receive a grant that would train minorities to pursue careers in medicine and research, I knew it was a wonderful opportunity,” Dr. Hunte-Ceasar said. “We have a limited number of both primary care physicians and specialty care physicians that can provide services within the territory. That results in a lot of care being provided in the emergency room and leads to decreased health care outcomes.”

The students will complete a two-week research boot camp at the Miller School, the UHealth—University of Miami Health System and Jackson Health System prior to a six-week program in the USVI.

Tags: Cardiovascular Research, Dean Henri Ford, Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, Dr. Sonjia Kenya, Dr. Yiannis Chatzizisis, public health