Emerging Health Leaders: Travis Gayles of Hazel Health

MHE Publication, MHE September 2022, Volume 32, Issue 9

Travis Gayles, M.D., Ph.D., chief health officer of Hazel Health, a pediatric physical and mental telehealth provider for K-12 schools, headquartered in San Francisco, is one of the 10 up-and-coming healthcare leaders featured in the annual Managed Healthcare Executive feature.

Travis Gayles, M.D., 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 National Academy of Medicine) and worked at the Advisory Board Company, a healthcare consultant firm, as a syndicated research analyst.

Based on those experiences and my interest in policy, I wanted to practice medicine and also be active in research and policy around improving care access and addressing health disparities. I pursued my M.D. and Ph.D. through the Medical Scholars Program at the University of Illinois. My Ph.D. was in community health with a focus in health policy.

I completed a pediatrics residency at Northwestern/Children’s Memorial Hospital (now Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago) and a fellowship in general academic pediatrics with a focus on adolescent and young adult medicine.

Leadership high points include serving as chief medical officer of the HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Tuberculosis Administration for the Washington, D.C., Department of Health; health officer and chief of public health services for Montgomery County, Maryland; and chief health officer at Hazel Health. I’ve also served on the faculty of New York University, the University of Maryland and 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 HIV, Viral Hepatitis, and STD Prevention and Treatment.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in healthcare?

From a strictly academic point of view, I find pathophysiology — how the body works and disease processes, particularly pediatric illnesses — fascinating. Healthcare provides the tools and platform to use clinical skills as well as policy, advocacy and research to correct disease processes. Given how many volatile things are occurring in the world, I view healthcare as an equalizer to at least ensure that children are healthy and able to combat what they may face in the world.

Which career accomplishment are you proudest of and why?

Graduating from medical school and completing the Medical Scholars Program. I am the first in my family to become a physician, namely because so many of the previous generations never had the opportunities that their hard work provided for me. I often think if they had more equitable access to education and economic opportunities, who knows what even greater things they would have accomplished. I hope my career path is a sign for those growing up where I did that the sky’s 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 route would be to simply view clinical service delivery as a transaction, but the more impactful piece is providing high-quality clinical care that addresses the whole child — inclusive of the impact of social determinants of health and other factors on a child’s ability to be healthy and present. Children are not high-cost users of healthcare services, and as a result, there is a less significant investment in funding pediatric services, especially in prevention.

What is your organization doing to address healthcare equity?

Hazel is designed to address systemic inequities by providing high-quality healthcare 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 in U.S. healthcare, what would it be?

So much of our pediatric care model is built upon waiting for a child to be symptomatic or in crisis, as opposed to building a sustainable culture of prevention for both physical and mental health. We need more investment from the public health/population health branch and greater commitment from the payer system to support building and sustaining a culture of prevention and inclusion of support services, such as case management and addressing 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 am a big advocate of self-care. The method doesn’t have to be expensive, but intentional. I enjoy playing competitive tennis, traveling, seeing theatre and exploring new restaurants. I also value connecting with family and friends to disconnect from the rigors of the job and help maintain perspective.