Meet Dr. Paul Hammerness
Dr. Paul Hammerness is the Chair of Psychiatric Services at Southcoast Health.
The COVID-19 pandemic had just begun when Dr. Paul Hammerness arrived at Southcoast Health to lead the development of a new psychiatric services department to serve the patients and families in this region.
Dr. Hammerness had spent two decades practicing, teaching and conducting research in child and adult psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Newton Wellesley Hospital, and Boston Children’s Hospital. He saw a deep and growing need for psychiatric services, especially for vulnerable populations including children and adolescents.
“In my first year at Southcoast, I saw far more kids who had parents die or overdose or commit suicide, parents who suffered from mental health issues or were in jail, than I’d seen in over 10 years in Boston,” he says, noting the severe influence of the pandemic in this past year.
The South Coast region, like many other areas of the country, suffered from a lack of pediatric mental health resources, and COVID made things worse. The pandemic left more children grieving a loss, isolated, traumatized by problems in their homes, made afraid by the anger generated by political polarization, and other factors that increased the risk of anxiety and depression, including suicide.
According to Southcoast Physicians Group pediatricians, in a typical day, 30 to 40 percent of all visits are for behavioral health issues, primarily anxiety, depression, and ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder).
In addition, children and adolescents show up at each Southcoast Health hospital emergency department, every day, in some form of behavioral health crisis, often with ideas of self-harm or suicide. And due to a statewide shortage of inpatient psychiatric beds and outpatient services for child and adolescent patients, these young patients often have to spend several days — or even weeks — in an emergency department room until they could be transferred elsewhere for care or discharged back to community services.
To combat this crisis for children, and for individuals of all ages, Southcoast Health has invested in a growing, hospital based, behavioral health workforce, with psychiatry presence in each of the three Southcoast Health Emergency Centers (EC) and on the medical floors. Psychiatric clinicians (Psychiatrists, Advanced Practice Nurses, Physician Assistants) work alongside medical and social work staff, not only to evaluate patients, but also to offer and begin psychiatric treatment while the patient is in the EC or medically admitted. Dedicated community health workers assist in connecting patients and families with a wide array of outpatient behavioral health services.
Regionally, Southcoast Behavioral Health Hospital in Dartmouth has begun ground breaking to add twenty-four pediatric beds to their current facility, to relieve the specific shortage of pediatric inpatient treatment options.
According to Dr. Hammerness, Southcoast Health’s commitment to health and well-being of the whole patient extends beyond the EC and hospital based care. “We are working toward providing comprehensive, integrated psychiatric care and service.” Under Dr. Hammerness’ leadership, Southcoast Health is committed to integrating behavioral health care within Southcoast primary care outpatient practices, for patients of all ages.
Integrated behavioral health care means bringing in dedicated behavioral health clinicians (social workers or licensed mental health clinicians) as well as dedicated community health workers, to work alongside primary care staff, to identify psychiatric conditions as early as possible, and provide improved access to care within primary care. This work includes those patients with medically complex conditions, such as diabetes or COPD, that psychiatric hospitals or community providers are not willing — or equipped — to treat.
Our aim is to provide behavioral health care and physical care together, as whole health care. “It’s the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “I am so pleased to be able to serve the South Coast region in this way.”
Dr. Hammerness is also beginning to offer Southcoast Health hospitals as teaching sites, for practitioners beginning a career in behavioral health services, including those attending regional nursing and physician assistant programs. The presence of students can enhance care, and provide a potential pipeline for future staffing, given the behavioral health needs of this region will likely continue to grow.
Dr. Hammerness earned his medical degree at Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, New Hampshire. He completed Psychiatry Residency followed by a Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship at Massachusetts General (MGH) and McLean Hospitals. He is certified by the American Board of Psychiatry/Neurology with clinical expertise in Child Psychiatry, Psychopharmacology, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children and adults.
Dr. Hammerness has been a clinical researcher, with more than 100 peer-reviewed publications, and has lectures locally, nationally and internationally. He has authored three books: on ADHD, brain organization and psychiatric medications for children.
To learn more about Dr. Hammerness click here.