INTERVIEW: Dr. Rachel Levine on Her Collaborative Approaches to Healthcare

For Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s newly appointed Physician General, collaboration is second nature.

In fact, back in 1996, while serving her tenure at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, she created a unique program that served teens, children, and young adults with eating disorders using a multidisciplinary approach, examining the patients’ physical and mental well-being through psychology, nutrition, and psychiatry.

“Today, multidisciplinary programs are common, but in ’96, it wasn’t so common,” Dr. Levine shared. Now, in 2015, the program the Doctor created is still one of the best in the nation, treating patients from 8 all the way into their 40’s.

“It’s a progressive, state-of-the-art program,” she said. “We fulfilled all of it’s missions: We researched, saw patients, and taught medical students. It’s still going strong at Penn State Hershey, and I’m proud of that.”

Clearly, Dr. Levine has a lot to be proud of: She’s the highest-ranked transgender woman to ever serve in a Pennsylvania Governor’s Board, and her esteemed medical career, which started before her time at Penn State Hershey, has rightfully deemed her an expert in pediatric care. It was back during her studies at Tulane University when she realized that pediatrics was a perfect fit.

“During the second year of medical school, traditionally you start to do physical diagnosis, practice interviewing patients, and provide physical examinations in different settings,” she explained. “One of those settings was pediatrics, and I fell in love with it. I loved seeing children, taking care of children, and helping families.”

It was during her third year of medical school when she was exposed to the relatively new field of adolescent medicine by one of her faculty mentors, and was immediately drawn to it.

“I thought it was great,” she explained. “Teenagers tend to be very stimulating and very challenging. With adolescents, you’re dealing with both medical issues and behavioral health issues. It’s the interface of both. Behavior informs the risks that teenagers have.”

After an extensive practice in New York at Lenox Hill and Mount Sinai Hospitals (plus a private practice), Dr. Levine took the leap to central Pennsylvania to start the program at Penn State Hershey. Now, she’s in Harrisburg, where she is, once again, using her signature collaborative style to address pressing health matters across the state. Her biggest focus right now? The state’s prescription opioid drug crisis.

“It’s a very complex issue,” she said. “People are abusing prescription opioids, which drifts into illicit drug usage, mental health issues, and overdoses.”

How severe is the problem in the state? It’s hard to say, primarily due to the decentralized coroner’s system in Pennsylvania. Dr. Levine referenced a report that states there are between 2,400 and 2,500 opioid overdose deaths in Pennsylvania each year, which averages to 7 individuals a day.

“It’s probably higher than that,” she added. “It’s not just a Pennsylvania problem; It is across the nation. We lose more patients to overdoses than car accidents. It impacts children, teens, young adults, mature adults, and seniors.” The problem ranges from overprescribing to children getting a hold of their parents’ meds to elderly folks getting confused and taking more pills then they ought to.

The approach to tackle this issue? Dr. Levine and Governor Wolf are working interdepartmentally across agencies such as the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, Human Services, Aging, and Insurance. The administration is also working on establishing prescription guidelines for geriatric medicine and providing continuing education for physicians and providers. They are also investigating “state of the art treatment,” drug monitoring programs, plus the distribution and use of naloxone.

Of course, Dr. Levine also has some very pointed concerns regarding LGBT healthcare, including healthcare disparities within the community, especially with trans medicine, and the ongoing HIV crisis. Of note, she mentioned the recent HIV outbreak in Indiana due to IV drug usage. She’ll also be working with the Department of Human Services and the Governor’s office on LGBT nondiscrimination legislation.

“I cannot emphasize enough that Governor Wolf is a very strong supporter of nondiscrimination in Pennsylvania,” she said. “The LGBT community will not find a stronger supporter than Governor Wolf.”