'Champion for Hispanic heritage' embraces diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at MUSC

August 31, 2022
Dr. Hermes Florez smiles while wearing a white doctor's coat.
Dr. Hermes Florez, chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences. Photos by Sarah Pack

When public health scientist Hermes Florez, M.D., Ph.D., decided to move from Miami, where Latinos are the majority, to Charleston, where they make up a much smaller percentage of the population, some friends were surprised.

“A lot of my former mentors said, ‘Are you sure that that's the right move for you? And I said, ‘Why not? It's a great opportunity.’ There are a lot of misconceptions about the deep South. I realized that Charleston is quite diverse and you really can embrace those values.” 

Florez, born in Venezuela, is proud to be part of that diversity. “I am very honored to be a champion for Hispanic heritage,” he said, as the nation prepared to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.

Florez brings that sensibility to his role as chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina, where he works to improve the health of people of all backgrounds.

“I fully embrace diversity, equity and inclusion in the Department of Public Health Sciences and the College of Medicine’s initiatives. I’ve had the opportunity to address some of the challenges that the Hispanic community has for access to care with my work at the free medical clinic on Johns Island and for the prevention and management of diseases that are more prevalent in Hispanics such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.”

Dr. Hermes Florez examines Octavio Carrillo-Lopez, checking for neuropathy, at the Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic on Johns Island.  
Dr. Florez examines Octavio Carrillo-Lopez, looking for signs of neuropathy, at the Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic on Johns Island.

Florez, an endocrinologist, volunteers at the Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic on Fridays. He also sees patients at the Ralph H. Johnson Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. That’s on top of his busy schedule leading the public health sciences department, where he has overseen important changes during his first two years. 

“The department has stepped up to the plate to fulfill its academic mission. We have gone through the accreditation of our public health program, national accreditation with the Council of Education for Public Health. We have also improved in our ranking on NIH funding,” Florez said, referring to the National Institutes of Health. The NIH funds research through grants to institutions such as MUSC.

“We moved from No. 20 in public health funding from the NIH nationwide to No. 16. That’s a great team effort. I'm not taking credit except that I'm a cheerleader I promote and provide any resources that we have at the chair's office.”

He’s currently waiting to hear if the NIH will fund a proposal to enhance MUSC’s recruitment of minority faculty in biomedical research. “This is going to be a $10 million of energy investment for our faculty across all the colleges. This was an initiative with all the deans expressing support for great research team from different clusters,” Florez said.

Dr. Hermes Florez wears a mask and a white doctor's coat as he hands a file to someone at a desk. 
Dr. Florez does paperwork at the Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic.

“We have the cancer and inflammation. We have the aging and neuroscience. We have cardio metabolic health, and also the population health and data science, unique strengths that we have in MUSC. And I was blessed to be part of the team leading the efforts for a successful submission. So hopefully in a few months, we'll see the response. But I said to the team, regardless of whether we get the funding, I'm willing to invest $1 million on my chair package toward that.”

Florez is also trying to get young more people from minority groups interested in public health science. “We go to the high schools here. You go to the community. You incentivize them. You say, you have the opportunity to participate in topnotch research at MUSC and obviously with other academic partners across the state then you sort of nurture them through college, and then eventually they will come hopefully to any of these colleges in MUSC and maybe do graduate studies, postgraduate training, and then the pipeline for minority faculty. And then we have the critical mass.”

Florez said his department is already expanding its programs, preparing to offer a master of public health degree online and a certificate in population health. “Those are among the ways to address the needs of the workforce training in South Carolina and beyond.”

Public health science involves preventing diseases, helping people live longer and improving health by addressing environmental threats. It uses a combination of epidemiology, biostatistics and health services to achieve those goals. Florez has a strategy to bring together more experts in those areas. “We're building the team, addressing the needs on environmental health and all these different omics: genomics, metabolomics, you name it.”

As he builds that team, he’s leading by example. “It is important to give the opportunity to minority faculty, staff, students and community partners to appreciate that one of their own, in this case a Hispanic public health physician scientist, can respond to the call to serve as a leader.”

If you’re interested in getting involved and observing National Hispanic Heritage Month, check out events and celebrations organized by members of the MUSC team.

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