Where Empathy and Grace Lead

An Interview with President and CEO Joseph Lee, MD
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An Interview with President and CEO Joseph Lee, MD

Early in his medical career, Joe Lee made a promise to himself.

As part of his fellowship training in child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Dr. Lee started the day working with elementary students in under-resourced Baltimore public schools. Teachers, social workers, public health staff and neighborhood groups worked in partnership to meet the most basic needs of the school children—food, shelter and health care. In the afternoon, Dr. Lee returned to the Hospital's internationally renowned specialty clinics serving children whose parents were often wealthy and well connected.

Although located within a mile or so of each other, the schools and hospital were worlds apart in terms of the level of resources available to children.

"My vow from that point forward was to treat every young person in my care as a VIP," Dr. Lee shares.

Today, as the first physician to serve as president and CEO of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, Dr. Lee's VIP commitment defines his approach as a healer and as a leader. Here he reflects on challenges and opportunities to connect more people with healing and hope.

What drew you to the practice of addiction medicine?

Being an advocate for people who don't have a voice, for people who are marginalized, has always been a part of who I am. It's what drew me to medicine, and eventually to psychiatry and addiction medicine—working with and advocating on behalf of patients who have been overlooked, underserved and marginalized in health care.

Substance use and mental health disorders are stigmatized in health care in ways that make it harder for people to get the help they deserve. If you go to any major hospital and ask where the psychiatric services are located, you will most likely be sent to the back annex. By every measure—square footage, insurance reimbursement, resource allocation—substance use disorders are seen as secondary in health care.

That really speaks to the stigma that surrounds substance use disorders.

Yes, and stigma works as a barrier to recovery in many different ways. Stigma is about access to care. Stigma is about people feeling ashamed of their story. Stigma is also about people's misunderstandings of how treatment works. Treatment and recovery are derided and stereotyped and even lampooned. A lot of people don't want to look beyond stigmatized beliefs, even when addiction is in their family. They don't want to know anything more about it.

And yet addiction is extremely common—with mortality rates climbing—despite the fact that the condition is highly treatable. Why?

I don't have a simple answer. We need more prevention in our schools and communities. We need easier access to quality treatment. We need stronger networks of recovery support to help people stay well long term. When you look at who is able to get help with a substance use disorder, it's typically those who have someone in their life who loves them enough to reach out, touch base and find out what's going on. That's how people get help. But too many people don't have those relationships or support networks in their lives.

How can Hazelden Betty Ford help to build those bridges?

Our mission has always been to reach out and help as many people as possible, and we're just starting to make connections in some communities where we haven't historically been. We're trying to help create more access points to resources and build equitable care in a humble way, recognizing that we have a long way to go as an organization in being of service to people from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds.

There aren't many treatment centers that also have a research institute or a consulting arm or a publishing division or a graduate school—not to mention a vast alumni family and generous donors as passionate as ours. So Hazelden Betty Ford is equipped to do more, and we are meant to do more. By aggressively seeking opportunities for greater collaboration, creativity, innovation and advocacy, we are moving forward with empathy and grace to help more people wherever they are.

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