UAMS Announces Center for Pacific Islander Health, $250,000 Grant for Pacific Islander Research Program

By Ben Boulden

The center’s work will include health disparities research, disease prevention and management programs, cultural competency training for health care providers, community health worker training and program evaluation. Northwest Arkansas is home to the largest Marshallese population in the continental United States, as well as a smaller number of other Pacific Islander communities.

The center will be co-directed by Nia Aitaoto, Ph.D., M.S., M.P.H., who joined the UAMS Office of Community Health and Research also at the Northwest Arkansas campus on July 1, and by Pearl McElfish, director of the Office of Community Health and Research. Aitaoto also was appointed an assistant professor in the UAMS College of Medicine.

“We talked to our friends at the University of Hawaii, we talked to our collaborators around the country, and they all said that Arkansas — that UAMS — is uniquely positioned to take on this role and to have this health center,” Aitaoto said. “So we like to say that we didn’t choose Arkansas — our people chose Arkansas by coming here and building their lives here.”

Aitaoto joins UAMS from the University of Iowa where she served as a research scientist in the College of Public Health. She previously served as an advisor to the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors and as a curriculum developer and instructor for the World Health Organization’s Pacific Open Learning Health Network. She received her doctoral degree in community and behavior health from the University of Iowa.

She holds a master’s degree in epidemiology as well as a master’s degree in community health development, both from the University of Hawaii. She has published more than 20 articles on health issues in Pacific Islander communities.

The Marshallese have one of the highest rates of type 2 diabetes in the world, affecting as many as 50 percent of those living in northwest Arkansas. The Marshallese also suffer disproportionately from Hepatitis B, tuberculosis and Hansen’s disease, as well as high rates of cancer, heart disease and obesity.

“We looked at a number of health centers around the country, and no one else is focusing just on Pacific Islanders,” McElfish said. “We know that information on Pacific Islander health issues is limited because it is often aggregated with data from other Asian-American populations. However, data that is available indicates that Pacific Islanders face a number of health disparities, particularly related to chronic disease.”

The Center for Pacific Islander Health will work with Pacific Islander populations in the U.S. and U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands: the U.S. trust territories of American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Compact of Free Association nations of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau.

“We are already doing great work in research and community health programs with the Marshallese here in northwest Arkansas, and this center is an opportunity to build upon that existing work,” said Peter O. Kohler, M.D., vice chancellor for UAMS’ northwest Arkansas campus.

The Center for Pacific Islander Health begins with a $250,000 grant from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) to connect Pacific Islanders interested in health research with experienced researchers, forming a mentoring partnership for the purpose of conducting patient-centered outcomes research to address health disparities in Pacific Islander communities.

This grant builds on existing Community Health and Research grant projects underway at UAMS, including a $2.1 million PCORI grant to study the effectiveness of a culturally appropriate, family-centered model of diabetes education in the Marshallese community and a $2.99 million grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to address health disparities among Marshallese and Hispanic residents of Washington and Benton counties.

“Pacific Islanders are underrepresented in research, both locally and nationally,” Aitaoto said. “We are interested in research, but most members of our community lack the skills and experience to do patient-centered outcomes research, so this project is really important to establish those mentoring relationships and build the skills needed to increase the number of Pacific Islanders in health research.”

A total of 20 participants will be selected for the program — 10 researchers and 10 patient/community investigators — and partnered together. Participants will learn about how community-based participatory research and patient-centered outcomes research are conducted, how to recruit and retain hard-to-reach study participants, how to partner with communities, and how to design a study and obtain informed consent. Teams will receive ongoing mentorship for a year following their training.

Anyone interested in learning more about the program or applying as a researcher or patient/community investigator may contact Laine Gates at (479)713-8672 or

“We know that health research and programmatic support works best when the community is involved,” McElfish said, “And getting Pacific Islanders involved as researchers, guiding the process rather than just acting as participants, will enable us to work more effectively to reduce health disparities for this underserved population. We are grateful for the support from PCORI to build these partnerships for the community, both here in northwest Arkansas and around the world.”

UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; a hospital; a northwest Arkansas regional campus; a statewide network of regional centers; and seven institutes: the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, the Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, the Myeloma Institute, the Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, the Psychiatric Research Institute, the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging and the Translational Research Institute. It is the only adult Level 1 trauma center in the state. UAMS has 2,890 students and 782 medical residents. It is the state’s largest public employer with more than 10,000 employees, including about 1,000 physicians and other professionals who provide care to patients at UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the VA Medical Center and UAMS regional centers throughout the state. Visit or, or find us on Facebook.