A Closer Look: Meet John Santopietro, MD

John Santopietro, MD

John Santopietro, MD
Chief Clinical Officer of
Behavioral Health

Earlier this year, John Santopietro, MD, joined Carolinas HealthCare System to serve as the new chief clinical officer of behavioral health.

Prior to his new post, Dr. Santopietro served as the chief medical officer for Connecticut's Community Health Resources. He was also president of the Connecticut Psychiatric Society (CPS), the state branch of the American Psychiatric Association.

In that role, Dr. Santopietro was instrumental in developing the response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings by sending psychiatrists to ground zero, who then provided services to all those impacted by the tragedy.

Recently, CPS honored Dr. Santopietro with the Service to CPS award, which commended his role in coordinating the response to Sandy Hook and continued efforts to promote behavioral health on a national level.

Here at Carolinas HealthCare System, Dr. Santopietro and his team are working through the newly created behavioral health service line to significantly and positively impact the unmet mental health needs of the local community.

What inspired you to specialize in behavioral health?
I was always interested in people, behavior, groups and what makes us tick. I took a course in college on Freud and was hooked. In medical school, despite a few temptations - including surgery - I became ever more fascinated by the brain and what makes the difference between people who recover from mental illness and those who continue to struggle. The minute I got into practice, I recoiled at how the behavioral healthcare system was so distressed and was doubly hooked. Now, I am fully committed to doing what I can to improve this.

What attracted you to joining Carolinas HealthCare System?
I think I am getting a reputation now as the 'sweet tea psychiatrist' after I wrote a piece about my excitement of finding Carolinas HealthCare System called, Sweet Tea and Mental Health Transformation for Psychiatric Times. In an epically, under-resourced field like behavioral health –even in the last four years, four billion dollars was drained from state mental health budgets in the United States – Carolinas HealthCare System's current focus on behavioral health provides a unique opportunity for truly innovative work to drive system transformation. Ahead of the curve, the System has arrived at the realization that investing in a strong behavioral health program is necessary for success in the value world, given how so much cost is driven by undertreated mental health issues. It is also the right thing to do – something deeply felt here, as well.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing mental health today?
Clearly, our biggest challenge in behavioral healthcare is stigma. It is in my opinion the primary reason people suffering with mental health issues avoid treatment. It is also the primary driver for the field being under-resourced, both in terms of funding for treatment and funding for research.

That said, we are making clear progress. We are having a national conversation about mental health in a way we have not in 50 years, fueled in part by national tragedies and in part by the healthcare dynamics at play. The federal government has begun funding the crucial scientific quest to map the brain, and those who have a good read on the pulse of the field predict more systems, like ours, are investing in the space as we are evermore focused on outcomes and cost.

Do you think stereotypes about mental health still exist today?
Absolutely. More than half of our community members who are suffering today with a mental illness go without treatment for this very reason. One driver of stigma is the perception that a condition is untreatable. Ironically, the vast majority of people suffering with mental illness recover with good treatment – 80 percent for bipolar, 70 percent for depression for example - but this has not made it into the community's collective understanding, likely because what's visible are many untreated or undertreated patients.

What are several top behavioral health initiatives underway at Carolinas HealthCare System you'd believe are of interest to providers?
First and foremost, is our ground-breaking project to integrate behavioral health service into primary care. We will leverage Carolinas Healthcare System's existing telehealth infrastructure by starting with well-proven national models and then innovate so we can take them to scale. When excellent behavioral health is part of the primary care team, there is no doubt that quality goes up for both medical and psychiatric measures, and costs go down.

Also, we are building a state-of-the-art behavioral health hospital with 66 beds in Davidson, N.C. It is hard to overstate the significance of building a new facility in an environment where resources are shrinking. It is a clear signal that we are committed to investing in behavioral health and in meeting community needs. When completed next year, the system will comprise 350 psychiatric beds. At Carolinas Medical Center-Randolph alone - with its 66 psychiatric beds and other programs - they treat 22,000 individuals annually with 550 employees, including a medical staff of over 50 and clinical staff of over 200.

I would also like to formerly welcome Martha Whitecotton, MSN, FACHE, senior vice president of behavioral health services, as the co-leader of the service line. She brings great energy, impressive leadership and a proven record of success in our System.

What is your background in medicine?
I completed my undergraduate degree at Yale University, medical school at Northwestern University, my internship and residency at Harvard's Cambridge Hospital and fellowship at Harvard's Austen Riggs Center.

What books are you reading?
Right now, I am reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and The Power of Myth with Joseph Campbell.

Who are your role models?
My two grandfathers are my role models. One ran a fish market; he taught me to get up early, work hard, put customers first and not to fear getting your hands dirty. The other was a craftsman who worked in auto tops and was one of the most naturally gifted people I have known at connecting with and finding the good in others.

Favorite quote?
I am currently liking The Master Craftsman Leaves No Mark, which I picked up in a book recommended to me on arrival here at Carolinas HealthCare System.

Tell us about your family.
My wife Kathy and our three boys - Max, Griffin and Beckett - are my strongest sources of support and hope. If any evidence exists that I have done anything right in my life, they are it.

Learn more about Behavioral Health.