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  • A Conversation with Elisabeth Kunkel

    A Conversation with Elisabeth Kunkel

    Chief Medical Officer, Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute

    Elisabeth Kunkel, 59, was named chief medical officer of Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute in April.

    She also serves on the faculty of Penn State College of Medicine and Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. She had been with Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia since 1989, serving as its vice chairwoman for clinical affairs from 2002-17.

    Kunkel earned both her bachelor’s degree in psychobiology and doctorate in medicine from McGill University in Canada. She completed her residency at New York University Medical Center and a psychosomatic medicine fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Cornell University Medical College and the American Cancer Society.

    She is in self-described “transition” between Philadelphia and Harrisburg with her husband, George, and two children.

    Q: Your role will include developing new programs related to patient-focused care. What goes into this development?

    A: New programs require adequate staffing both from a provider point of view as well as the staff who support the care. Once you have your team, you can think about where you are best going to serve the people you’re taking care of. Many of our patients get psychiatric care with us but don’t have physical health care, so they might not get their blood pressure checked or their diabetes monitored and so forth. We’re looking at something called reverse integration, where we would bring primary and specialty care into PPI.
    Patient-centered care is doing things that are helpful to patients. Traditional medical care is delivered 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. If your patients work, that is not the most convenient time for them. We think about what they might want, either before work or after work hours for patients who want to maintain employment at the same time they’re taking care of their psychiatric and psychosocial needs.

    Q: PPI helps people with mental health and psychiatric disorders achieve stability in their lives. What are some keys to this balance everyone can apply to their lives?

    A: We teach patients and staff how to deal with crises in a way that calms people down, that doesn’t get them more agitated or stressed. Managing stress is very relevant to the business community. The other thing we talk about is trauma-informed care. If you look at people and, for example, what they post on social networks, they post what is good about their lives, and when you talk behind the scenes you find out people experience a variety of forms of trauma. Understanding what kind of traumatic events they’ve been through can help teach them coping strategies.

    To talk about work-life balance on a bigger scale we need to talk about health-disease balance. In medicine and from a business perspective, to help our employees, we need to shift to thinking about helping people maintain health, prevent disease instead of treating disease once it’s there. That kind of stability has a myriad of payoffs.

    Q: What makes you smile?

    A: In the middle of one of my busiest days I was on our children’s unit, and wound up having a conversation with a young boy. He asked for his Bible, and read me the passage “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadows….” He was struggling with some words, but we stood there in the middle of what was very busy all around us and just focused on him and what he needed to help calm himself down. Then we talked about, what does this mean? It means keeping yourself calm when it’s easy to become part of the chaos. He enjoyed it and I enjoyed it because that’s really what health care is about.