Psychiatry Chair Hochang (Ben) Lee, M.D., Joins URMC From Yale

Jun. 8, 2017
Research continues to substantiate the intimate connection between our mental and physical health.

The University of Rochester Medical Center has recruited Yale School of Medicine associate professor of Psychiatry Hochang Benjamin (Ben) Lee, M.D., as the new John Romano Professor and Chair of its Department of Psychiatry. Lee will begin the post in September, pending approval of the University Board of Trustees.

Lee is founding director and chief of Yale’s Psychological Medicine Service, which oversees all consultative and collaborative psychiatry programs at Yale New Haven Hospital’s York Street and St. Raphael campuses. He also directs Yale’s Psychological Medicine Research Center, which develops strategies to deliver psychiatric services to medical and surgical inpatients and prevent the onset of neuropsychiatric issues after major surgeries.

He succeeds current John Romano Professor and Chair of Psychiatry Eric Caine, M.D., who is stepping down after leading the department for nearly 25 years.  Caine will remain on the faculty and continue his nationally-funded research in suicide prevention.

We will continue to develop a pipeline of excellent providers to serve the Finger Lakes region, not only psychiatrists and psychologists, but APRNs, social workers, and family therapists in collaboration with the UR School of Nursing, and other academic institutions.

“Many outstanding individuals applied who were excited at the prospect of leading the superb programs built by our faculty, staff, and trainees during Dr. Caine’s tenure,” said senior associate dean for Academic Affairs and professor of Psychiatry & Neurology Jeffrey Lyness, M.D., who led the search committee. “Dr. Lee stood out for his broad experience leading effective interdisciplinary teams that span all departmental missions, and his ability to develop innovative models of care delivery that serve as ripe platforms for training and scholarship.”

URMC CEO and School of Medicine and Dentistry dean Mark B. Taubman, M.D., said Lee’s ability to work well with other clinical departments to address behavioral health conditions “will further the department’s collaborative philosophy and its mission to improve length-of-stay and outcomes for patients, and support their transition to effective outpatient care. Ben will also fuel the expansion of Psychiatry’s research programs, particularly those that dovetail with the Del Monte Neuroscience Institute’s multidisciplinary work to tackle major neurological and neuropsychiatric diseases.”

Millions of Americans currently struggle with some form of mental illness, and those with serious mental illness have expected lifespans 20 years shorter than the general population, largely due to treatable conditions. In hospitals, as many as 30% of all adult medical-surgical patients have concurrent psychiatric conditions contributing to high readmission rates and poor health outcomes.

Lee has devoted much of his career to proving that better integration of psychiatric care across health disciplines and departments will improve the general health status and quality of life for this disadvantaged population, and produce major savings to medical centers by lowering length-of-stays, cost of care and readmissions.  

“In the fee-for-service health care environment, psychiatry is not viewed as a revenue-generating service, but in the new system of value-based care, it will emerge as a leader,” Lee said. “By far, behavioral issues are the leading reason for re-hospitalization and non-adherence to treatment, so it’s critical we focus our energies here." 

During his visits to Rochester, Lee said he was impressed by the collegiality and camaraderie across departments and disciplines.

“It’s evident that URMC takes pride in its culture of teamwork and is uniquely positioned to develop innovative models of care that address both physical and behavioral aspects of health.”

In his years at Yale New Haven Health System, Lee transformed its understaffed and struggling Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry Service into what is now its Psychological Medicine section, which embeds and integrates behavioral health services into medical and surgical specialties. Lee also co-led the development and implementation of a Behavioral Intervention Team concept, through which all medical patients are screened for mental health issues at their initial point of contact to drive earlier intervention. Now replicated at Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, Mt. Sinai, SUNY Stonybrook and elsewhere, the model was demonstrated through his research to help shorten length-of-stays, lower cost of care, and potentially reduce readmission rates of medical patients with concurrent psychiatric conditions.

In addition to his top-tier research about how best to provide psychiatric services to hospitalized patients, Lee is leading nationally-funded studies to determine how to prevent neuropsychiatric conditions in elderly patients after major surgery like coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery. Nearly a half-million Americans undergo CABG surgery annually, and as many as 30% are affected by depression in the year after surgery. Elderly patients are at particular risk of developing depression, delirium and/or dementia.

“I would like to find a way to make surgeries safer for the brain health of elderly patients,” he said. “Over the next several years my research will continue to focus on trying to predict who develops these issues and what we can do to prevent them.”

John Foxe, Ph.D.,  director of the Ernest J. Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience, said that Lee brings with him an “extremely strong clinical research agenda, in addition to his clinical expertise and deep compassion” for patients.

“The Neuroscience community here in Rochester is extremely excited to have Ben on board,” said Foxe. “In our discussions during his recruitment, it became clear that we will be able to achieve a tremendous amount with him at the helm of the Department of Psychiatry. Ben is an ideal partner with The Del Monte Institute as we focus on developing new understanding of severe mental illnesses and bringing new therapies online to treat these devastating diseases.”

Born in South Korea, Lee moved with his family to the Seattle region in 1982. It was his father’s dream to move to the U.S. after visiting Rochester on a business trip to Kodak in 1975.

“My father fell in love with Rochester when he was here, so it will always hold a special place in my family’s folklore and in my heart,” said Lee, who lost his father in 2012 to Alzheimer’s disease. His father’s influence on his life is detailed in an essay he wrote and had published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in 2011. “Rochester feels like home to me and is a fitting place for the next chapter of my career.” 

Lee earned his bachelor’s degree at Cornell University, his MD at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1997 and completed his residency and fellowships in Neuropsychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University. He is board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in both Psychiatry and Psychosomatic Medicine.

In 2003, he was appointed assistant professor in the Division of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neuropsychiatry within Johns Hopkins’ Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, where he rose to associate professor in 2011. He was also an assistant professor in the Department of Mental Health in Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health from 2007-10, and directed research development for the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry for four years.

 Yale recruited him in 2011 to become chief of the medical school’s newly-created Psychological Medicine section and associate professor in its Department of Psychiatry. He was jointly appointed as an adjunct clinical associate professor for Yale University School of Nursing.