Dr. Elizabeth Miller Elevates Pittsburgh Communities through Public Health Advocacy
A beloved member of the Pittsburgh community and a longtime partner of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, Elizabeth "Liz" Miller, MD, PhD, FSAHM, is a champion of adolescent medicine and public health. She is a professor of pediatrics, public health, and clinical and translational science at the University of Pittsburgh. She holds the Edmund R. McCluskey Chair in Pediatric Medical Education at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and she is the director of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine and the medical director of Community and Population Health. She serves as the Academic Co-Director of Community PARTners (the community engagement core) for the Clinical and Translational Science Institute. As a pediatrician with deep ties to on-the-ground community advocates, she collaborates with community-based organizations to connect young people to necessary care. She is an active researcher in sexual violence prevention, adolescent mental health, and community health, publishing over 280 peer-reviewed articles, and she has played a critical role in organizing COVID-19 vaccine clinics and information sessions to reach marginalized communities across Allegheny County. With her warm, welcoming personality and varied background of expertise in both medicine and anthropology, Dr. Miller is a major force in promoting Pittsburgh's public health.
Growing up in Kobe, Japan, Dr. Miller was raised bilingual and bicultural. She was inspired to go into the health field when she read a book about nursing in fourth grade. Her best friend at the time encouraged her to become a doctor, and her father, providing a social-justice influence, reminded her every day before school to "do the right thing." Summers spent with her grandparents in Mississippi, where she was exposed to racism and bias-based discrimination, later fueled her commitment to racial equity. Dr. Miller's family doctor, a Belgian nun at a Japanese community hospital, further encouraged her to pursue a medical career focused on social justice.
Dr. Miller attended Yale for an undergraduate degree in art history, but always keeping a medical education on the horizon, she then went on to complete medical school at Harvard. Throughout her medical education, she was focused on social issues in medicine. She created a feminist health organization with other woman-identifying medical students in her first year, and she later studied health care for the homeless in Japan. Dr. Miller was mentored by Jim O'Connell, a national leader in street medicine and medical anthropologist. This inspired Dr. Miller to then complete a PhD in medical anthropology at Harvard.
While completing her residency in internal medicine and pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Miller volunteered at a clinic in a Boston neighborhood with concentrated disadvantage, which served unstably housed youth who were system-involved or gang-affiliated. She then became a school physician for a Boston community school district, where she started a clinic in the high school and remained for six years, and she began her research career focused on intimate partner violence and sexual violence prevention. A nurse practitioner and a community organizer mentored Dr. Miller, further expanding her knowledge of adolescent health and community health. The community organizer began a substance use coalition in response to the local opioid crisis, at a time when "a bag of heroin was actually cheaper than a six-pack of beer," Dr. Miller says. Through experiences of collaborating with school boards and community organizations to address the crisis, the community organizer taught Dr. Miller foundational knowledge of advocacy and community-partnered research principles.
Today in Pittsburgh, Dr. Miller is involved with a myriad of projects at the intersection of community and adolescent health and health equity. Her research focuses on reproductive coercion and intimate partner violence, her most recent publication investigating prevalence of these experiences among American Indian and Alaska native women. With UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, she is the primary investigator for a program that conducts outreach with youth involved in the juvenile court system without a mental health diagnosis, supported by a grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation. This program connects teens with mental health resources and teaches skills that enhance resiliency through a yoga intervention with an antiracist framework, aiming to overcome barriers to mental health resources that youth may experience. "What we have learned from our work with court-involved youth is that the systems are set up to make mental health and behavioral health delivery really challenging," Dr. Miller says. This issue intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, as restrictions required a shift to virtual sessions.
When the COVID-19 vaccines became available to the public, Dr. Miller and a team of academics and community organizers sprang into action, creating the Community Vaccine Collaborative (CVC), an innovative community–academic partnership centered on mitigating the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Latinx communities. Through virtual Speakers Bureau events with Black and Latinx healthcare professionals, the CVC has provided COVID-19 vaccine education and worked to form trust between minoritized communities and the medical community. Trained community health deputies recruited by the Neighborhood Resilience Project provide accurate information about COVID-19 to answer community members' questions, and the CVC collaborates with organizations, after-school programs, and school districts to create opportunities for people to connect with medical professionals. Dr. Miller emphasizes the importance of identifying trusted sources of information for community members, removing barriers to scheduling information sessions, and taking an open, respectful approach to answering any question. "You always have an obligation, as a health professional, to center community voices and community experiences. And to always take an asset-based approach," she says, to promote recognition of communities' strengths.
Throughout the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Miller says she has found joy and celebration in seeing young people become connected to care and in supporting community-based vaccine clinics. At home, Dr. Miller says she is "fortunate to have an amazing spouse who feeds me well," and that she enjoys sharing time with her spouse after long days of Zoom calls. Her kitchen and garden have provided a place of respite, so that she can return to her heroic work in the Pittsburgh community.