At first glance, with only 800 students, Ponce Health Sciences University (PHSU) may seem like just another medical school in Puerto Rico. But upon closer inspection, one realizes that this university is a breeding ground for a new type of doctor altogether, one that is ready to cope with the changing dynamics of the US healthcare system.
Puerto Rico is the answer to many healthcare problems in the US
David Lenihan, PHSU
Leading the charge is David Lenihan, CEO of PHSU. “North America is facing a cultural deficit in healthcare, and our unique health disparity research is a real asset for the US,” he says. “Despite the rapid increase in the Latino population, there is actually a decline per hundred thousand of Latino doctors. Such a decline affects not only the patient-doctor clinical reality but how a given disorder or disease is investigated.” Given that many diseases can be specific to certain genotypes and cultures, the research being done at PHSU is truly groundbreaking.
Take cancer for example. According to Kenira Thompson, president of the Ponce Research Institute, genetic ancestry studies have identified that breast cancer predisposition for Puerto Rican women is different from that of North American women of other ancestries. “Our Cancer Biology Division has spent many years identifying the genetic markers specific to Puerto Rican breast and skin cancer predisposition compared to other Hispanic and global populations,” Thompson remarks. “We have also identified low DNA repair capacity as an important risk for breast cancer in Puerto Rican women. Our current research sits at the forefront of Precision medicine, which requires epidemiological, demographic, and genetic information to make the best therapeutic decision for each individual patient. These targeted treatments for specific populations are extremely important for patient outcomes and reducing costs.”
PHSU’s groundbreaking work goes far beyond the research, however. The school is actively dedicating its curriculum to what Lenihan describes as “bicultural skill sets”, which are particularly important in Puerto Rico, the number one supplier of Latino doctors to the US. “Medical treatment for most patients tends to be the same, but the cultural handling of the patient – whom you talk to, physical contact with the patient, etc. – can be very different based on the patient’s background,” explains Lenihan. “PHSU produces doctors in Puerto Rico with the necessary levels of cultural competency to effectively manage this kind of situation, whereas the majority of US-trained doctors lack this skill.” These skills, which Lenihan views as a unique value proposition, will become necessary as the demographics of many states in the centre of the US start to see an influx of Latinos, while the number of actual Latino doctors in these states remains negligible.
Lenihan, Thompson and the PHSU team hope to replicate this method of teaching in the US. “I hope to quadruple our research and to have interacted with at least ten health systems across the US during my tenure here,” says Lenihan. “These interactions with non-Puerto Rican health systems will contribute to a database on patients, in turn allowing us to apply for more basic science and clinical research grants that will provide a significant number of ROIs for Puerto Rico. I want medical students from other schools to come here to receive training that they would not receive in their home states.”
“The US needs this, and we can be number one in this niche,” he concludes. “Puerto Rico is the answer to many healthcare problems in the US. If managed correctly, [this could] bring Puerto Rico out of its economic crisis.”