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Becoming a Holistic Healer for the Historically Marginalized

Photo of Joel Burt-Miller smiling into the camera. He is standing outside wearing a gray jacket, purple tie, and blue shirt.

Burt-Miller intends to work both on the ground as a clinician and upstream in the policy space to most effectively reduce health inequities.

When Joel F. Burt-Miller showed up to his first year at University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Greenville, he was one of only two Black men in his class –

By his second year, he had helped increase the percentage of underrepresented students in the program from 14% to 24%.

“It didn’t matter that I was just starting out. I still had something to offer those coming up behind me.”

Burt-Miller will earn his Doctor of Medicine with distinction in Leadership Education and Development in May 2024 – and he said it was National Medical Fellowships that helped him to further his vision for serving under-resourced communities of color as a physician.

“By giving me the opportunity to conduct research and clinical work at a low-resourced setting, NMF provided me with greater perspective of my ability to be a change agent. My experience also gave me more incentive to push through the rigors of medical school and reminded me of my why.”

Burt-Miller and his two brothers were no strangers to the demands of a career in health care. His father, a primary care physician, and his mother, a registered nurse, immigrated from Jamaica to the Bronx in the 1980s.

“There were major differences in the resources available to us in Manhattan, where my parents worked, versus the resources – especially quality health care – my friends and their families were able to receive in the Bronx,” he said. “I wanted to figure out how to be a part of correcting that.”

At Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts – where he earned his Bachelor of Science in Biology and Health: Science, Society, and Policy – Burt-Miller said he learned language to contextualize the inequities he witnessed growing up in his predominantly Caribbean community.

“It’s what got me invested in becoming someone that helps eradicate inequity and improve social determinants of health,” he said.

Burt-Miller therefore poured himself into prestigious fellowships, summer programs, and study abroad opportunities to not only study health issues and conduct clinical research in underserved communities, but also foster community relationships and provide youth mentorship.

“For example, after traveling with the Brandeis’ Chapter of the Global Medical Brigades to Honduras, I was inspired to study community health and social policy abroad in South Africa, where I learned from my host-brother, Mdu, the concept of ‘ubuntu,’ which means, ‘I am because you are,’” Burt-Miller said. “The philosophy that we are connected by our humanity no matter who we are or where we’re from deeply impacted me and drives all my relationships today, including my ability to connect and interact with patients despite our differences.”

After graduating from Brandeis in 2016, Burt-Miller taught English in New Delhi, India on a Fulbright-Nehru scholarship, and produced a 2017 hip-hop EP titled “The Love Project with Union Academy.”

“Writing and performing hip-hop gave me an outlet in which to process what was going on around me in society since high school,” he said. “I’d share what I was working on with friends and they connected to it, too.

“So, I don’t see it as disconnected from my work as a physician, because it’s tied to what I seek to do as a healer, for both individuals and their collective communities.”

Burt-Miller then earned his Master of Science in biomedical sciences from Duke University School of Medicine and, in 2019, was accepted into the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville, where he became chapter president of the Student National Medical Association, which created a pipeline of local high school and undergraduate students interested in attending medical school.

“Students who identify as underrepresented in medicine don’t always have the same resources or abilities to attain admission because of where they’re starting from. As I’ve moved up and along, I’ve tried to help others get there as well.”

As an NMF Primary Care Leadership Program scholar in 2020, Burt-Miller partnered with North Shore Community Health – a community health center in Salem, Massachusetts – and conducted research focused on understanding the benefits and barriers for the under-resourced population they served while accessing telemedicine services at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our work helped to inform state legislation on telemedicine utilization,” he said.

Burt-Miller also designed and launched the Ubuntu Healing Project – an IRB-approved research study seeking to assess and address social isolation and burnout amongst students, staff, and faculty within the medical school with connection, conversation, and a sense of belonging.

“Some people feel like medical school is the final frontier, but for me, it’s another tool in my toolbox as a healer intentional about making changes in communities that have historically needed it.”

This past year, as a Zuckerman Fellow through the Harvard Kennedy School Center for Public Leadership, Burt-Miller added a Master of Public Health in health policy from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston to that toolbox.

“Working as a health policy intern with the MassHealth Office of Behavioral Health, I was able to help administer grant funding to local community mental health centers to expand culturally relevant mental health services in underserved communities and populations across Massachusetts,” he said. “I also provided policy recommendations to help expand the work they do, especially for hard-to-reach communities of color.”

“My intention is to not only do the work on the ground as a clinician, but also work upstream as well in the policy space.”

Burt-Miller said he’s currently applying for residency and seeks to connect his passions for mental health and preventive care as a primary care physician and psychiatrist.

“My goal is to first become a physician that works with historically marginalized patient populations I’m able to learn from, and eventually move up to become a health care leader impacting the work of community health centers.”

In the meantime, Burt-Miller continues to support NMF as secretary of the organization’s Young Leadership Council.

“NMF resides at the intersection of health care and policy, too, with scholarships” – including Burt-Miller’s 2021 Dr. Theodore Quincy Miller Scholarship – “and programming that supports students identifying as underrepresented in medicine,” he said.

“It’s now my honor to be able to connect students and engage alumni with who and what NMF is today, and how they, too, can give back.”