ECU cardiac psychology program brings heart-brain connection into spotlight
On the heels of marking its 15th year, ECU’s nationally unique program in clinical health psychology continues to gain momentum through positive patient outcomes — and national recognition.
The program is a collaboration between ECU’s departments of psychology and cardiovascular sciences that has yielded a nationally unique blend of academics and research. The model integrates training psychology doctoral students and cardiology fellows in cardiac clinics, a strategy that the program’s founder calls the best of both worlds.
“This is a success story from eastern North Carolina,” said Samuel Sears, program director and professor in the departments of psychology and cardiovascular sciences. “From a national landscape, this is an extremely unique program. Only at East Carolina do you have this kind of synergized, integrated, one-for-one engagement in the training of cardiologists and the training of psychologists. Our program is intending to lead the country in this.”
Sears established the training program in 2007 and collaborates with Rajasekhar Nekkanti, associate professor and director of the cardiology fellowship program at ECU and ECU Health, to offer ECU students an integrated program experience that spans clinical care, research and training.
“Dr. Sears and his colleagues have been able to accomplish what others have only talked about,” said Alan Christensen, professor and chair of the ECU Department of Psychology. “Their seamless integration of clinical psychology into a cardiovascular medicine setting is really a pioneering effort in implementing what I believe will prove to be a more effective approach to training, research, and caring for patients.”
The growing field of cardiac psychology focuses on providing psychological care that is an interdisciplinary, comprehensive care approach to cardiac arrhythmia patients and their families.
Depression and anxiety are common occurrences after cardiac events and can occur in as many as one-third of all patients. These conditions interfere with all aspects of recovery from daily rehabilitative planning, medication adherence, and the pursuit of quality of life.
“Cardiac psychologists help by validating the emotional experience of having a heart problem, and helping patients take the next steps in their recovery emotionally and behaviorally,” Sears said. “ECU Cardiology and Cardiovascular Surgery continue to innovate, and that allows our patients to survive. Here at East Carolina, we have the vision and program to address the patient experience and recovery process fully from a psychological and behavioral perspective. We integrate all the aspects of recovery and prepare trainees for the future of cardiac care.”
The program was highlighted in a 2022 edition of Health Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association. The article, “Cardiac Psychology Training in a Rural Health Care Setting: East Carolina Heart Institute,” was led by author Kayla Sall, a 2023 graduate of ECU’s clinical health psychology program. Doctoral students Ashley Griffith, Emily Midgette, Andrea Winters and Connor Tripp also co-authored the article with Sears and Nekkanti.
“We are very proud to publish in our field’s top journal,” said Sall, who begins a psychology internship at Brown University this fall. “The publication goes to show how unique our training experience is. It’s very rare to find cardiac psychologists that are located in cardiology.”
The Health Psychology article covers not only the program’s unique nature of intertwining science with practice, but also its ability to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic by transitioning to using telehealth to serve patients in rural North Carolina. It also explores the health disparities in eastern North Carolina that impact cardiac patient care and progress.
“Cardiovascular health is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S.,” Sall said, “so being able to take that lens and apply it to the social determinants of health has been amazing, and it’s how we’ve been able to do what we do.”
Greenville native and ECU graduate Scarlett Anthony didn’t have to go far to find a program that offers world-class education and preparation that will help her make a difference in her home region and beyond.
“I chose ECU’s program because of the focus on health psychology and the intersection between psychology and medicine. We train alongside psychologists who are embedded in medicine, and our program provides us with exceptional training among various health care settings,” said Anthony, a doctoral student in clinical health psychology. “I chose ECU’s program because of the dedication to serving diverse populations of eastern North Carolina, and I am passionate about providing care to those who may not have access to health psychology services otherwise.”
Standards of practice
Sall led the writing team in detailing the ECU training program and its strong collaborations in cardiology. The article presents ECU’s program as a national model for ideal collaboration between cardiology and psychology training that enhances the clinical and research expertise of both groups.
The ECU cardiac psychology program is part of the APA accredited clinical health psychology program. This program has achieved national rankings over its 15-year existence and annually has an approximately 5% acceptance. Rob Carels serves as the director of clinical training for the clinical health program.
“The article confirmed that the ECU program is not only one of a kind, but it remains the model as programs and universities try to create this similar-type experience,” Sears said. “The reason it’s so hard to create the ECU experience is that it requires both physicians and psychologists accommodating very different mindsets and contributions with the shared goal of patient success first. Physicians can quickly implant a cardiac device. Psychologists can quickly assess and treat psychological concerns. But when these two sets of problems merge, we need shared expertise.”
The article also highlights the setting of ECU’s health psychology program, a rural area where the social determinants of health — including environment, economic stability, community context, education and health access — impact health and wellness on a greater scale.
“Being in eastern North Carolina, we have a very unique setting with our patient population in a rural area,” Sall said.
That context allows psychologists to better understand the behavioral and mental health of cardiac patients. Many patients seen by cardiac psychologists at the East Carolina Heart Institute include those who suffer depression after a heart attack or other cardiac event, those with atrial fibrillation (a-fib) and those who have recently been fitted with implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICD) — devices similar to pacemakers that correct heart arrhythmias with a high energy shock that can feel like being kicked by a horse.
“I think that is what is so scary for patients; they agree to have this device implanted, they know it’s life-saving, but you don’t know when the shock is going to go off,” Sall said. “You may go the whole rest of your life without receiving a shock, so that’s where part of the anxiety and fearfulness comes in.”
In the program’s scientist-practitioner approach, providers on each side have a thorough understanding of the opposite discipline.
“I think that’s what’s cool about cardiac psychology — here we are with people presenting with medical conditions or health issues and we’re evaluating, diagnosing, treating emotional behavioral disorders within the context of health and medicine,” Sall said. “We’re not doing just one or the other, we’re doing these together.”
World expert in action
Sears is a highly productive researcher examining quality of life and psychological adjustment in patients with heart rhythm disorders and ICDs. He has published more than 200 articles in the medicine and psychology research literatures and has well over 11,000 citations. In 2021, Expertscape.com named Sears one of the top 50 experts and most prolific authors in the world on ICDs over the last 10 years, amongst the 27,847 authors on the topic.
“I’m involved in both the training of psychologists as well as the training of cardiologists, so we’re trying to make cardiologists better at patient psychology and psychologists better at understanding the cardiology, so it’s synergistic,” Sears said.
Sears travels the world presenting his research and lending his expertise to patient, family and physician groups.
In 2013, the UNC Board of Governors presented Sears with the O. Max Gardner Award, the highest honor bestowed to a faculty member in the UNC system for contributions to mankind.
“The O. Max Gardner Award changed me because I stopped looking for external validation about our achievements. I desperately wanted to make an impact on our patients, our students, our university, our state and beyond,” he said. “The award confirmed some of these marks, so I used my energies more efficiently on the work at hand. I am proud of the health psychology program and the cardiac psychology program that my colleagues and students have created. In terms of work, I am so pleased that many of our ideas about helping cardiac patients are broadly employed across many sectors in cardiology, not just where we started.”
The article in Health Psychology signals consistent success and upward momentum for the program, said Sears, adding that Yale University’s health psychology program is the only other such program mentioned in that edition of the journal.
“This is a 15-year-old program. We’ve established success,” he said. “This is not a great idea that’s going away. Great ideas happen all the time, but they’re not sustainable. This is a sustainable solution that has true outcomes.”
When it comes to patient outcomes, Sears is optimistic that the growing field of cardiac psychology will continue to yield hope and healing.
“We can’t fix all the health inequalities, but what we can do is help our patients make small steps to have better awareness of where there are a lot of possibilities and decision points, and connect them to other resources,” Sears said. “Yes, this is a hard mountain to climb. Let’s do this together.”
Doctoral student Zachary Force said students begin the program learning what clinical health psychology can offer the world — and how ECU is leading the way.
“ECU has always done things differently, and other institutions are starting to take notice. ECU’s cardiac psychology service has received national recognition as the only place in the country to receive specialized training in an area with increasing need,” he said. “ECU’s fighting spirit imbues its doctoral students with the resiliency needed to advocate for psychology within the medical field.”