Answering the phones SunCloud Health

A little history on the guy who answers most of the incoming calls at SunCloud Health

People often ask me why I still enjoy taking many of the initial calls that come in from prospective patients and their families here at SunCloud Health.  When we first started with three employees at one site 5 years ago, it made sense for me to do this.  At this point, with over 40 employees and three locations, on the surface it doesn’t make much sense. My responsibilities now include long term strategic initiatives including moving in to the Residential space and developing an adolescent program, working with payers on alternative payment models, and I am responsible for marketing, security and compliance.  An outsider could (and probably would) make a clear and convincing argument that my time would be better served focusing on some of the “bigger picture stuff” and allowing one of our trusted team members to “answer the phones”.  For today anyway, I would disagree.  Taking these calls doesn’t feel like a “job” and I am honored to make the time to do so.  As long as I believe patients and their families get value from spending some initial time with me on the phone, it may be a while before I give it up.

I often say there is not much that I hear on the other end of the phone that I cannot understand or personally relate to in some way or another.  As a result, I believe people quickly get a good sense not just for who we are and what we are about but as importantly they feel heard and they don’t feel rushed or judged.  I treat people like I would want to be treated if I were on the other end of the line calling and asking for help. I understand the responsibility that comes with these initial calls.  I may not be a clinician, but I have been “there” myself and I certainly know who we are, what we do and where we can help.

My personal experience with mental health and addiction started very early on…  Apparently, my mom who I love to death put me on a “lettuce diet” when I was two years old because I was too heavy for her liking.  She’s nearly 80 today and has lived with her own eating disorder for at least as long as I have been alive.  My parents divorced when I was 10 and in hindsight that was the beginning of the short term end for me.  It was if the ground underneath me opened and I fell right through in to the dark abyss.  I think I saw my first psychiatrist when I was about 8, and I have been seeing one regularly pretty much ever since for long standing anxiety and depression.  My father was an untreated alcoholic, gambling addict and severely depressed man. He was physically aggressive with me on at least one occasion.  In an attempt to keep food on our table, my mom went back to school and then to work following the divorce.  Unfortunately, she went MIA for about 5 years while I cooked meals for my younger sister and waited at home in a panic back by the front door for her to return in the evenings.  As I did what I could to gain some control over my suddenly out of control life, I took to running 6 miles per day every day by the time I was in fifth grade.  I was the youngest by far on the trail at 5 am!  Not surprisingly, I ended up at the Inpatient Psychiatric Unit at Michael Reese Hospital in the middle of my junior year of high school for a very bad case of anorexia and bulimia where I spent nearly four months. 

By my junior year of College, I turned to alcohol and pills.  Though never diagnosed I was at the very least a binge drinker.  Before I even knew what ALANON stood for or what the word, “co-dependency” meant, I married an active drug addict and alcoholic.  She continued to use heavily not just through the birth of my two older children but through the entire 4 years it took to finalize a badly needed divorce where I ended up with full custody of my two older children.  A few months later I was diagnosed with and treated for stage 1 Esophageal Cancer, likely caused by my eating disorder and undoubtedly the anxiety I have lived with my entire life.  A home I loved was destroyed by a Category 5 Hurricane, and I know what it is like to have a 25 year- long career (and nearly all of my self-esteem) come to a screeching halt because of macro changes in the economy.  There have been a few times in my adult life when I wasn’t sure I was capable of living and had thoughts of taking my own life.  My older children have struggled with addiction, depression and anxiety.  I am a survivor, like many of our patients and their families.  I understand why we utilize an integrative model that treats both behaviors and underlying trauma.  To me it makes perfect sense that we don’t track people by primary diagnosis.  I know the high I got from starving myself was very similar to the high I got when I would drink excessively, and I know both behaviors were integrally connected to my anxiety, my depression and underlying pain and loss I experienced in my lifetime (aka trauma).  I know recovery is possible and I also know it can take lots of time and work.

Nearly 8 years ago my life began to take a dramatic turn in a positive direction when I got back together with and married the true and only love of my life, one of the smartest and most passionate psychiatrists in the country who spends her life helping others.  Together we started SunCloud, because treating people with co-occurring substance use disorder, eating disorders, mood disorders and related trauma is what she lives for and because it’s a field near and dear to my heart.

I am a big believer in standardized outcome measurements in mental health and addiction treatment.  They don’t exist today, and patients suffer as a result.  I believe that once we in this industry pull back the curtain and show the world the quality that we are (or are not) providing, only good things will happen for those of us who are providing quality care and the patients we serve.  Conversely, those providing poor care will be forced to change or go out of business. 

When people call us, I am acutely aware of the lack of such data people have in their time of need and how some bad actors will exploit this vulnerability.  I love the fact that we don’t, we never have, and we never will.  We don’t need to.  I know we offer an incredibly valuable service.  I know there are plenty of people out there who we can help and I also know our model is not suited for everyone.  We take the time to steer people in the right direction even if SunCloud Health may not be the best fit.  A big part of why I wanted to start SunCloud Health was because I wanted to play a disruptive role in an industry that in many ways is in dire need of change- for those like myself.  From my vantage point now, I can clearly see where the system is broken and at SCH try and do everything we can to help patients avoid the pitfalls that are out there. 

When people call us for the first time, it takes zero effort for me to find compassion and empathy for what they might be experiencing.  I love helping people steer through healthcare bureaucracy and I love empowering people with my knowledge and my experience.  I know what we mean when we say we specialize in providing integrative care for people struggling with complex co-occurring eating disorders, substance use disorders, mood disorders and related underlying trauma, and I am able to explain that to people easily.   People call with a sense of humility and realness that makes it impossible not to like all of them within the first minute of the phone call.  Our patients are survivors.  I love that about them.  I love the fact that what lies behind our curtain is a highly educated, deeply devoted and sophisticated clinical team that consistently puts the best interest of our patients above all else day in and day out.  Money does not come first here.  It never has and it never will.  I love the fact that our website is very authentic and that we spend very little on marketing.   I often tell people that if the videos and writings on our site speak to you, they can trust that.  I love telling people that when they do an assessment with us, they are going to get a recommendation that is in their best interest, regardless of what may be in our best interest and even sometimes regardless of what they think they may want to hear.

One day I will find the right person to pass the baton on to.

For today, I will continue to do what I love!

Read more about David Newton, MBA, Director of Operations and Co-founder