2022 Champions of Health Care: Dr. Robert Zylstra, non-physician practitioner

Zylstra honored for work connecting physical health and mental well-being

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Dr. Robert Zylstra and therapy dog Harley.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Dr. Robert Zylstra and therapy dog Harley.

Morning meetings at the University of Tennessee Family Practice Center are a little happier when Dr. Robert Zylstra is around. But he knows he's not the one that the buzz is about.

All the cooing is over Harley, his canine sidekick, an adoptee from the Chattanooga Humane Educational Society and registered therapy dog. Just Harley's presence is enough to lifts spirits around the office. That was part of the plan.

"Everybody loves seeing him," Zylstra says. "He's really good at being 'professionally friendly.'"

Officially, Dr. Zylstra (better known to many as "Dr. Z") retired this July as a medical social worker after 25 years with the Family Practice Center, where he helped train more than 100 resident physicians over the course of his career. His main goal: helping rising professionals understand and better treat the connection between mental well-being and overall physical health.

A major milestone in his career came through his affiliation with the University of Tennessee College of Social Work at Chattanooga. Typically, graduate level social work students get training by working with specialized agencies. And through his leadership, the Family Practice Center was able to begin functioning as one of those agencies. This new synergistic relationship, connecting the worlds of medical and mental health, he says, is when things started getting really good.

"Typically, in a clinical or family practice setting, physicians don't tend to focus on a whole lot of social and environmental issues," he says. "But because we now have social workers here, the physicians have more freedom to address those sorts of issues."

He offers all sorts of examples: Unsafe neighborhoods. Lack of transportation. Inability to pay rent or buy groceries. In the medical world, these are known as "social determinants of health" -- conditions that affect a person's quality of life. But physicians aren't necessarily trained to deal with those issues.

"Now, with social workers on board, physicians have the confidence to ask about those sorts of issues," he says. "Because we have the resources to deal with them."

Zylstra was also instrumental in helping create a mental wellness counseling service for physicians themselves. Rae Bond, CEO of the Chattanooga- Hamilton County Medical Society, approached Zylstra to ask for his expertise. Together, their leadership brought LifeBridge into existence -- a completely anonymous service that allows medical professionals to get the counseling they need.

Physicians are able to access a list of vetted licensed therapists through the Medical Society, then contact their therapist of choice directly. No one knows the physician's name other than the counselor. There is no insurance involved. And the Medical Society covers the cost of the first six visits.

"As you might imagine, physicians are often reluctant to ask for help, fearing it makes them look impaired. But that's not the case," says Zylstra. "We were finding that physicians were avoiding getting the help they need due to concerns with confidentiality."

Since the beginning about six years ago, more than 100 medical professionals have used the service.

"There was obviously a need," he says.

Robert Zylstra

* Role: Director of Behavioral Health, University of Tennessee College of Medicine – Chattanooga, Department of Family Medicine.

* Career: Medical social worker (master's in social work, University of Michigan; doctorate in educational psychology, University of Memphis).

* Personal: Married to Margaret Zylstra, retired nurse with the Hamilton County Health Department; father to two adult children.

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