Leading the Vanguard: Stephen Patrick

Stephen Patrick smiling

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) member Stephen Patrick, M.D., MPH, M.S., FAAP, serves as director of the Vanderbilt Center for Child Health Policy. He is an assistant professor of Pediatrics and Health Policy within the Division of Neonatology at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and an attending neonatologist at Monroe Carell, Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. He also currently serves as an adjunct physician for Policy Research at RAND Corporation and is a guest researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Patrick’s National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded research focuses on improving outcomes for opioid-exposed infants and women with opioid use disorder and evaluating state and federal drug control policies.

In the interview below, Patrick shares what inspires his research in developmental disabilities, what he’s learned through his lab’s work, and how membership with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center helps him achieve his goals.

Tell me about your attraction to developmental disabilities research. Do you have a personal connection to disability?

My research focuses on how clinical and public health systems can improve outcomes for children. Much of this work has focused on how the opioid crisis has affected pregnant women and infants. This work provided me a lens to better understand how systems, ranging from the child welfare system to early intervention, can work to improve outcomes. Our team has highlighted how the opioid crisis led to a nearly sevenfold increase in the number of opioid-exposed infants born nationwide from 2000 to 2016. This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve found that pregnant women have profound difficulty being accepted for treatment. That opioid-exposed infants are treated variably in U.S. hospitals and that many of the systems designed to help them are not doing as well as they could be. We are working with our research and clinical implementation teams to try and fill these gaps.

What are your current research interests and what problem(s) or challenge(s) does it address?

Most recently, our team’s work has focused on how COVID-19 affected parents and children. This work found that, nationwide, a quarter of parents reported worsening mental health since March and that 1 out of 7 children had worse behavioral health. We also found that our nation’s children are less food secure, have lost employer-sponsored insurance and/or regular childcare, and have experienced delayed clinical care. It’s an urgent situation that requires immediate attention from policymakers.

Our funded work all focuses on opioids, including better understanding barriers to treatment for pregnant women. As a pediatrician, I understand that healthy mothers have healthy infants. We have to get women with opioid use disorder into evidence-based treatment if we are going to improve long-term outcomes for their infants.

Do you have a story about a research participant or a breakthrough that illustrates the impact of your work?

Much of the positive stories I hear are from women in recovery. As we work to engage them in a humane, trauma-informed, compassionate way they feel validated and empowered.

What are your reasons for becoming a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) Investigator? How does the VKC enhance the work you do?

The VKC exposes me to exceptional partners. I’ve learned so much from folks like Zachary Warren. I’m grateful to be affiliated with such an extraordinary group of people.

Elizabeth Turner is associate director of VKC Communications.

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This is a monthly email of Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Notables published by the Communications staff of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. Between issues of Notables, you can stay up to date on the latest Vanderbilt Kennedy Center news, information, and resources via the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Facebook page.