Travis Gales, M.D., Ph.D., chief health officer of Hazel Health, a pediatric provider of physical and mental health telehealth for K-12 schools, based in San Francisco, is one of 10 Future Leaders in Healthcare featured in an annual managed healthcare feature.
Travis Gales, MD, Ph.D.
I grew up in the small town of Chase City, Virginia. As an undergraduate at Duke University, I double majored in Public Policy Studies and African/African American Studies. After college, I studied pediatric palliative and end-of-life care at the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) and worked at the Advisory Board Company, a healthcare consulting firm, as a syndicated research analyst.
Based on this experience and my interest in policy, I wanted to practice medicine and also be active in research and policy to improve access to care and address health disparities. I pursued an MD and a Ph.D. through the University of Illinois Medical Scientist Program. My PhD was in public health with a focus on health policy.
I completed a residency in pediatrics at Northwestern/Children’s Memorial Hospital (now Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago) and a fellowship in general academic pediatrics with an emphasis on adolescent and young adult medicine.
Leadership highlights include serving as Chief Medical Officer of the HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD, and Tuberculosis Administration at the Washington, DC Department of Health; health officer and superintendent of public health services for Montgomery County, Maryland; and Chief Health Officer at Hazel Health. I have also served on the faculty of New York University, the University of Maryland, and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and I currently co-chair the CDC/HRSA (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Health Resources and Services Administration) Advisory Committee on Prevention and treatment of HIV, viral hepatitis and STDs.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in healthcare?
From a purely academic perspective, I find pathophysiology – how the body works and disease processes, especially childhood diseases – fascinating. Healthcare provides the tools and platform to use clinical skills as well as policy, advocacy and research to correct disease processes. Given how volatile things are going on in the world, I see health care as an equalizer to at least ensure that children are healthy and able to deal with what they may face in the world.
What career achievement are you most proud of and why?
Graduation from medical school and completion of the medical scientist program. I am the first in my family to become a doctor, precisely because so many of the previous generations never had the opportunities that their hard work afforded me. I often think that if they had fairer access to education and economic opportunities, who knows what even greater things they would have achieved. I hope my career is a sign to those growing up where I did that the sky is the limit.
What is the most challenging part of your current position?
Trying to create a sustainable business model that is socially driven. The easy way would be to simply view the provision of clinical services as a transaction, but the more impactful part is the provision of high-quality clinical care that addresses the whole child—including the impact of social determinants of health and other factors on the child’s ability to be healthy and present. Children are not high-cost consumers of health services and, as a result, there is less significant investment in funding pediatric services, particularly in prevention.
What is your organization doing to address health equity?
Hazel is designed to address systemic inequities by providing high-quality health care at no cost to students or families, regardless of their financial, insurance, or immigration status, to students where they already spend most of their day—which is at school . This eliminates barriers including cost, transportation and provider shortages to increase equity and access.
If you could change one thing about healthcare in the US, what would it be?
So much of our model of pediatric care is built on waiting for a child to have symptoms or be in crisis, as opposed to building a sustainable culture of prevention for both physical and mental health. We need more investment from the public/population health branch and greater commitment from the payer system to support building and sustaining a culture of prevention and incorporating support services such as case management and social determinants of health. We cannot continue to wait for children to be in crisis before we step up and address their concerns.
How do you avoid burnout?
I’m a big advocate of self-care. The method does not have to be expensive, but purposeful. I enjoy playing competitive tennis, traveling, going to the theater and exploring new restaurants. I also value connecting with family and friends to take a break from the pressures of work and help keep perspective.