A fourth-generation Arkansan, Bledsoe served as Surgeon General for Arkansas from 2015-2023. His past roles have included positions at Arkansas Heart Hospital, Align MD, and serving on the faculty of John Hopkins Department of Emergency Medicine. Bledsoe has also been a consultant with the US Secret Service and participated in multiple diplomatic missions, including on the advance team for President George W. Bush and as the personal physician for former President Clinton during their African tours.
John Shegerian: Do you have a suggestion for a Rockstar Impact Podcast guest? Go to impactpodcast.com and just click Be a Guest to recommend someone today. This episode of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by co2.com. Companies today are trying to figure out how to achieve high-quality climate credentials. co2.com is the easy button for any business to go beyond offsetting and fund truly impactful projects across carbon, nature, and community. CO2 provides verified metrics that can be used in reporting and messaging. Have confidence in demonstrating your climate leadership. Go to co2.com to access quality climate credentials you can trust on the road to net zero and mature-positive. This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.
John: Welcome to another edition of The Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and we’re so lucky to have with us today, Dr. Greg Bledsoe. He’s the strategic advisor at Kindly Human. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Dr. Greg.
Dr. Gregory H. Bledsoe: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
John: I’m excited to have you because we’re going to be talking about the very important issue of mental health in America and what you’re doing at Kindly Human with your colleagues to help us get over the hump here, get over basically the problem of mental health, which has been facing us for a long time, basically stigmatized. Hopefully, we’re destigmatizing it and democratizing the ability to help more people now with your great technology at Kindly Human with your colleagues. But before we get talking about that, Dr. Greg, you are a highly esteemed doctor. You used to be the Surgeon General for Arkansas from 2015 to 2023. Also, the personal physician to many great people like President Bill Clinton and other dignitaries. Talk a little bit about your background. How’d we even get here now? Why’d you choose Kindly Human? What was your journey as a physician leading up to this new position you’ve taken on as a strategic advisor at Kindly Human?
Dr. Bledsoe: Well, thanks, John. I appreciate it. I grew up in a small town in Arkansas, and I did med school and residency in Little Rock at UAMS, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. And my residency was in emergency medicine. And what I decided I wanted to do after residency first was I wanted to do global health. So I moved from Little Rock to Baltimore. I started a fellowship in International Emergency Medicine at Johns Hopkins, and that was a two-year program. I earned my master’s degree in public health. And then, I went from there as a trainee to a faculty member. They asked me to stay on faculty. So I was at Hopkins about five years. And that’s when I got the experience working with the United States Secret Service. And I traveled with former President Clinton to Africa for about 10 days. And then, later, I was on the advanced team for the acting president, President George W. Bush. But was there at Hopkins for about five years and then lived overseas for a year working with the University of Pittsburgh on a contract in Cutter or Qatar, some people call it in the middle east. And then came back, worked private practice in emergency medicine, founded a medical education company called ExpedMed, which is teaching mainly American physicians and nurses how to do medicine out of the box, so to speak, away from the hospital in remote and osteo regions. And so we teach expedition medicine, wilderness medicine, travel medicine to physicians and nurses. And I was doing that.
And then late 2014, early 2015, was appointed by Governor Asa Hutchinson to be the Surgeon General for Arkansas. So I moved back home and was the Surgeon General for our state for about eight years. And I recently stepped down, a couple of months ago, from that. And in this transition period that I’ve had since I’ve been Surgeon General, I’ve been offered a number of different projects, things to maybe get involved with. But I’ve had the fortunate luxury of being somewhat choosy with where I spend my time now. And someone, a trusted colleague, introduced me to Kindly Human and said they’re trying to address the mental health aspect of what’s going on in our society by connecting people who have needs to peer support within companies. And I really like that model. And I’m sure we’ll have more time to talk about it, but I love the fact that we’re bringing cohesion and community to people who need it. And that’s something that is not only very important for individuals but communities and healthcare as a whole. We don’t need to be sending everyone to the emergency department. We don’t need to be admitting everyone to a hospital. And a lot of what we’re seeing, in my opinion, is a loosening and a breakdown of the fabric that we have in our society that really we need more connection, more support, more community, and that goes a long way to helping people. So that’s kind of a general overview. Yeah. But yeah, done a lot of different things.
John: That’s great, though. And that’s great because it widens your perspective too of what’s really going in this world. Go back to the Surgeon General. I’m always fascinated by that, Greg. What is a Surgeon General? As a surgeon general, what are you tasked to do, and how much ability do you have to move the needle of medicine, so to speak, in healthcare in the given state that you happen to be the Surgeon General?
Dr. Bledsoe: Yeah, so that’s a great question. So every state has a top health person. And in Arkansas, about 20 years ago, they split that position into two positions. And so you have the formerly called the Director of Health, which was the person who ran the Arkansas Health Department. And then you had a policy person called the Surgeon General, which was a direct report to the governor that helped on whatever the governor wanted them to work on. And so, for me, what I spent my time doing was I would get assigned various projects, things ranging from Medicaid reform to the opioid crisis, to the differences of opinion on medical marijuana and that issue, which was kind of combustible here. And then, of course, the big issue in the last few years was the COVID pandemic and our state’s response to that. And so, the duties of the Surgeon General changed, and the projects changed during the various things that we had going on in our state. But you work at the pleasure of the governor. You’re a direct report to them. And I had a great time doing it. It was a really fun way to get out in my state and meet a lot of people who were really working in the communities to help people and their healthcare. And I was able to also work with a lot of really talented elected officials around our state who were trying to solve problems. I love the fact that it was nonpartisan, that it didn’t matter. Didn’t matter what your philosophy was. When it came to politics, if you wanted to solve healthcare problems, you were on our team. And so that was something that I found very inspiring. I got to work with people across the political spectrum to solve problems.
John: That’s nice. That really is nice. And boy, does that sound like a far cry from where we are on a national basis?
Dr. Bledsoe: Yeah.
John: But it reminds me of our youth where when we had people reaching across the aisle to solve important issues that faced all of us. One of the great things, as you said earlier, one of your specialties was as an emergency medicine physician. Did that help you really inform you as to how bad the mental health crisis is and why this is one of the opportunities? I’m sure you were faced with a multitude of opportunities when you stepped out of the Surgeon General position. Was that why Kindly Human was one of the opportunities you chose to work on because of how you were informed as an emergency medicine physician?
Dr. Bledsoe: Yes, absolutely. So my specialty training, again, was emergency medicine, and that took me all over the world. So I’ve worked in a lot of different places. But over the last 10 to 15 years, a lot of my clinical work has been in emergency departments in the United States. And so what’s interesting and also an issue that keeps coming up over and over again if you work in emergency departments is you have a number of people who show up who are there because they have no other place to go. It’s the safety net. And when you start to peel back the issues that land people in emergency departments, what you find is that a lot of it has nothing to do with healthcare. Sometimes it’s socioeconomic issues. People have their lights turned off, or they can’t get the food that they need, or they can’t get a ride to their doctor, or they don’t have family in the area who are helping them. And again, a lot of it is attributed to this breakdown of society and the unraveling of the fabric that used to be there a generation or two ago where we’ve looked out for each other, and now people are, for lack of a better explanatory way of saying it is they’re just alone.
They’re marginalized, and so they end up in emergency departments because there’s no other place for them. And I began to see this over and over and over again, and you would have things that were classified as medical problems, but really they’re not when you peel back the surface. So overdoses, suicide attempts, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, even some other things with regards to some of assaults and things like that. When you peel it back, it has to do with things that could be helped upstream of the emergency department if people just had the resources. And so when someone approached me with this idea with Kindly Human, I thought, well, this could be something that’s more upstream that helps people connect and prevents some of these problems that we’re seeing over and over again in our emergency department. And by that time, it’s very difficult to solve. So I had great hope with that.
John: Kindly Human, first of all, for our listeners and viewers, we’ve got Dr. Greg Bledsoe with us. He’s a strategic advisor at Kindly Human. To find Dr. Greg and his colleagues at Kindly Human, please go to www.kindlyhuman.com. Talk about when Kindly Human started, what was its mission, and what did it set out to really accomplish.
Dr. Bledsoe: Well, the leaders of Kindly Human, when they started it, they started to solve a problem. The founder, Cole Egger, who tells a story about how he had a healthcare issue in his own family. And he realized, not only in going through that struggle himself but in talking to close friends, that a lot of what he needed during that was not a physician, but he needed a friend, a counselor, a listening ear, someone to support him, and someone who’d been in that struggle before who could walk him through the issues and give him sort of a heads up, well, hey, look, this is something you might need to deal with or is coming down the pike if this continues in this direction. And so that was really the inspiration of Kindly Human. And what they have attempted to do is they’ve attempted to connect people in the workforce with people who are peers and support that have gone through similar stressors or similar issues as the person who’s seeking help. And one of the reasons why I think this is such a great idea is when you look at what’s going on in our society, the good part about what’s going on in our society is that you can basically be anything you want to be.
You’re not stuck in the same town if you don’t want to be there for the rest of your life. We’ve got a very mobile society. We’ve got a society that you can connect online, and you can live a lot of different places and do a lot of different things, and that’s all great. But the flip side of that is that because we have a very mobile society, because we’re very individualistic, which is good in some ways, but the bad side is that there’s a fraying of this community and the tight network that people had a generation or two ago. And so you have to step back and ask yourself, “Okay, well, if we’re having this fray of the network and the society that we’re seeing, where are people spending their time? What are they doing on a day-to-day basis?” And for most people, if they’re out of school, it’s at work. And so the average person is going to work and spending hours a day doing something for work. And for a lot of people, that is the main place where they get connected to their peers, to friendships, to their whole social circle. And so one of the reasons why I think Kindly Human is a great concept is because it goes into the workforce and it allows peer support and connection within the corporations or the companies or the workplaces where people are already spending a lot of time. You’re not asking them to add something else on. What you’re doing is you’re giving them support where the individuals already are spending the majority of their days. So I really like that concept. And again, it’s really about focusing the attention upstream and connecting people before there’s a lot of problems that build up and they end up in places like where I work in emergency departments.
John: Doc, besides so much of business obviously, or anything in life is right time, right place. I’m 60 years old. So let’s talk about some trends that we’ve both seen over the last 20 or 30 years. One, years ago, 20, 30 years ago, mental health issues were very stigmatized. It wasn’t okay to talk about mental health issues. They weren’t services such as Kindly Human and other competitors that are doing not only, as you say, peer-to-peer counseling, but also just psychologists to consumer counseling online and making that now democratized and available to people. It was very stigmatized, as were addictions and other mental health issues. Secondarily, as you say, since you are an emergency medicine physician, you said a lot of folks that you were seeing were coming in and, of course, had mental health issues that bore out of loneliness. One of the trends that I’ve also seen that I think we’re all seeing is since the technological revolution, let’s just call around the year 2000, it seems as though there’s, as you say, that the fraying of our communities has in combination with the technology revolution has also made us a more lonely society, which I think has only been accelerated post COVID with almost having the opportunity to do things over Zoom or whatever, text or email. And we can become more lonely and insulated than ever before. Has that become sort of the right time, right place model that allows a great concept like Kindly Human to step in and help repair the connectivity of our society?
Dr. Bledsoe: Well, yeah. I think you’re hitting on it exactly. Correctly. To get back to your original question about the stigmatization, you’re absolutely right. I have this conversation and interestingly, it’s often young men that feel that way still today.
Dr. Bledsoe: But thankfully, it’s becoming less stigmatized, and we’re looking at mental health differently than we did a generation or so ago. What I tell my patients is let’s say they come in, and we run a bunch of tests, and they’re having all these symptoms, but the tests are all negative. And what I tell them is that what I’m not saying is that your symptoms are not real or that something’s not actually happening. What I’m saying is that we’ve ruled out these bad things with the EKG and the blood work and the chest x-ray and all these other things, but the fact of the matter is that we are learning more and more about the mind-body connection and how stress and how our emotions not just give us the sense that something’s going wrong, but actually can produce physical problems if they’re not taken care of. And so I talk to these young men in particular, and I say, “I don’t want you to misunderstand what I’m saying. If you are having these symptoms because of stress or anxiety or fear or whatever it is, I’m not telling you that you’re weak. I’m not telling you that it’s all in your head. I’m not telling you it’s not real.
What I’m saying is that we need to address this in a way that will actually help solve the problem.” And I think that’s what’s changed in our society when it comes to the stigmatization of mental health issues, is that I think more and more people are realizing that we’re not telling patients that this isn’t something real. We’re telling them that this is something that is very real. We just need to address this in a very practical way and pull it out into the daylight and say this is a normal thing. This is a fine thing to be struggling with. There are a lot of other people that struggle with this, and they’ve overcome these issues. We just need to be focused on it and deal with it. So the first part of your question, I totally believe that we have spent a lot of time stigmatizing mental health, and we’ve done a good job of taking a step towards destigmatizing it, thankfully.
Dr. Bledsoe: The second part of that, as far as the connection, you’re absolutely right. Again, I think that the good and bad of where we are as a society is we’re very mobile. We allow people to do all sorts of different things and to pursue their interests, and to become whoever they want to become. And part of that is through technology. There are classes that you can take online now that you would’ve had to move to a certain area, relocate and sit under a specific teacher. And that’s an incredible opportunity. It’s an incredible thing. And there are people who live in beautiful places who do the virtual commute, so to speak, and they are able to live their lives in a great way through the internet connection. But the flip side of that is that there is a difficulty sometimes with in-person contact. And because we’re so mobile and because we can connect virtually and online, sometimes what happens is that the in-person and the long-term relationships that were there a generation or two ago they’re just not there. And with the benefit of being mobile and the benefit of having technology, the downside is that you don’t often find people who’ve known you for 20 or 30 or 40 years, or who knew your parents or know your family. There’s just that lack of network and support that people sort of took for granted a generation ago that is just not there anymore. And that’s, again, what I think Kindly Human is trying to address is a lot of people don’t need a physician; they need a friend. They need a listening ear. They need a person who’ll come alongside them and help them work through their problems. And that’s why I think this company’s done a great job of helping people through that.
John: Greg, as we know, employers already have offered some mental health resources historically to their employees. Why is Kindly Human a better solution, and how does it actually work? Explain to our listeners and viewers how Kindly Human works if they want to engage with it and they want to use it at their place of their employment.
Dr. Bledsoe: Well, it’s a peer connector, for lack of [inaudible]. It’s what I would call a peer connector. And so it’s not taking the place of those other mental health resources. What it’s doing is it’s sort of serving as a bridge and what I like to call a triage. So someone’s struggling with an issue, they want to talk to someone. This is a very non-threatening, non-intimidating way to get connected to someone like them. So if they’re having a financial issue or they’re having depression or anxiety, they connect with a peer support, a peer counselor who has self-identified as someone who’s gone through those issues and would like to help and is trained. And again, it’s not someone to take the place of a physician or these other mental health resources. It’s to be a non-threatening, non-intimidating first step so that someone who is struggling with these issues can at least have a listening ear. And it might be that that’s all they need. They just need someone to listen and to give them some general counsel and some support, and they can go out, and they can figure it out from there. But for a certain percentage of people, they do need specialized care. And so it refers these individuals on to others. But again, the great thing about Kindly Human is that people will pick up the phone and talk to a peer oftentimes before they’ll talk to a professional just because they feel threatened by that or intimidated by that. So it’s a way of triaging and meeting people where they are in a non-threatening way but still retaining quality in the sense that you’re not cutting out anything or replacing anything.
John: Got it. And how’s it going so far? How has the traction been going, and how has it been received out in the marketplace?
Dr. Bledsoe: I think we would all say that it’s really encouraging. Every month it goes by, there’s growth, and there’s more people who are saying, “Hey, we get it now. This is something that we can offer to our employees that would be an added benefit.” And I’ve talked to some employers and people around the country, and it’s interesting that one of the big issues going on right now in US healthcare is the rising cost of healthcare. And everyone’s trying to figure out how do we tackle the cost of healthcare without cutting services or reducing quality. And that’s one of the great things about Kindly Human is that you’re able to meet people where they are. For some people, you don’t need to send them to the doctor. They don’t end up going to the physician. And so it actually, in the end, lowers healthcare costs, but you still retain quality because you’re not taking away anything from the employee. You’re just adding an extra benefit. And so I really like that model where we’re adding a friendly first step, and in doing so, we are retaining quality while reducing costs of healthcare. And that’s something that’s very unique and a great thing. We need to be trying other things like that in our healthcare system.
John: This also reminds me, Greg, that there’s not a week that goes by that folks like you and me and other just folks read the news or see the news and hear about another tragedy. Obviously, we’re living in the wake of just a recent horrific Louisville tragedy in the bank over there. And again, it sounds like what you’re doing at Kindly Human could have been such a great intervention tool for a young man that was suffering. And, of course, you and I don’t know personally what was his mental health issues. His parents have recently come out and said he was suffering from some mental health issues. But boy, it just seems as though this whole mental health and employment and tragedies are surrounding these employment situations where Kindly Human could be such a great buffer to help intervene and perhaps not have so many tragedies happen that we’ve seen the rise of in this great country of ours. It’s beyond sad.
Dr. Bledsoe: Yeah, it really is. No one knows, for sure, in that specific case, but certainly, I think most people would say that the sense of isolation and sense of marginalization that people are feeling in our country is contributing to a lot of very destructive things. And again, one of the reasons why I love Kindly Human is that it’s attempting to reconnect people where they are and to be a friendly first step for people who are struggling with various things. There are so many patients in my emergency departments over the years that I’ve thought to myself; I wish this individual had someone to talk to or had had someone to talk to in the months to years leading up to what brought them in tonight. It’s a tragedy. And again, I think it is the flip side of the benefits that we have for being an individualistic society that has the ability to be mobile and has this technology that we can live anywhere and do anything. We don’t have the support structures in place now in our society that were there a generation or so ago. So we need to find solutions to that. And I think Kindly Human is a step in that direction.
John: For our listeners and viewers who’ve just joined us, we’ve got Dr. Greg Bledsoe with us today. He’s a strategic advisor to Kindly Human. To find Dr. Greg and all his great colleagues that are helping fix this mental health gap in America, please go to www.kindlyhuman.com. Greg, since you are so well-esteemed and traveled and formally and real-life educated, I’d love just to ask you what’s going on a little bit more with the healthcare pulse issue in America and also personalized medicine. What are these two trends? Is the issue of personalized medicine one that you see continuing to rise, and do you see us helping to fix the issue of healthcare costs rising in America and closing the gap of building a bigger tent in this great country to have more people have access to great medicine?
Dr. Bledsoe: Yeah.
John: Another big question. I know. I’m sorry.
Dr. Bledsoe: No, I think it’s a great question, though. Yeah, it’s funny. In my years as Surgeon General, I talked to a lot of different political persuasions. To me, as Surgeon General, I didn’t care what your political persuasion was. If you wanted to solve healthcare problems, you were on my team. And so I sat down with everyone. And what was really interesting was that regardless of whether you were far left, far right, in between, whatever, everyone agreed on one thing, it’s that we can’t keep doing what we’re doing. And when you look at the cost of the US healthcare system, and you look at the percentage of our GDP that we’re spending on healthcare every year, and every year it goes up, everyone is in agreement who looks at that, and they say, this cannot continue as it is. And people have a lot of different opinions about the way to do this. But I think a couple of principles, number one, we need to start with the patients, and we need to try to figure out how do we get quality care to the individual and not just the people who are the wealthy people or the urban people, or the people who already have the connections. How do you get quality care and maintain quality care in our rural communities or in parts of our communities that don’t have high still socioeconomic value or socioeconomic abilities? And so those are the big questions. And I like some of the things that I’m seeing. I’ve talked to people who are doing some direct care with people who are in rural communities. I think telemedicine has great promise in certain ways if it’s done correctly. I like the fact that some organizations and some entities that I’ve talked to are doing kind of what Kindly Human is doing, and they’re looking more upstream, and they’re trying to figure out the cause of some of these diseases, and they’re attacking the issue there.
So, for instance, there’s this something I didn’t realize until I became Surgeon General. There are things called food deserts in the United States, which is, you can live in certain parts of certain states, and the only place you can really buy food that’s within a few miles of you is a convenience store that sells things that are fattening and sugary and not good for you. And if you’re someone that already is struggling financially, you’re not going to want to pay $30, $40 of gas to drive an hour-plus to go to a grocery store to get healthy food that’s really difficult for you to do. And so, solving the problem of the food deserts and getting healthy food to the people in these regions, that goes a long way towards attacking at the root issues like type two diabetes and obesity and eventually heart disease. So those are the sort of things that I think we need to be thinking about. And I would just encourage anyone who has a heart for this sort of stuff to do your best to step away from the partisanship. Because what I found is there are good ideas that there are people who have colored those as left ideas or as right ideas or those as whatever. But when you take a step back from the partisanship, you see that there’s not a lot of distance in between a lot of these good ideas. And so, the unfortunate reality is we live in a very partisan age, but for those who are trying to solve healthcare problems, I would just strongly encourage you to do your best to sidestep those issues, deal with things that work regardless of where those ideas come from. I think that’s a great first principle.
John: That is great advice. Kindley Human, obviously, you’ve just started there in recent times. What’s the future for Kindley Human? Why are you excited about the months and years ahead and the growth of Kindley Human, and helping solve the mental health gap in America?
Dr. Bledsoe: Well, I’m excited about Kindly Human because I feel like they meet people where they are. It’s a great first step for people who are struggling in a lot of different ways. It goes to the places where most people congregate these days, which is in the workplace. And it does it in a way that’s non-threatening, it’s non-intimidating, it’s friendly, and it doesn’t take any quality away from the employee or the individual. It adds to them an aspect that can help solve their problems, but at the same time, triaging them to the right place where they need to go. And that in and of itself, I think is going to help lower overall healthcare spend while not taking quality away from the individual. So I’m really excited about the prospect of Kindly Human in what they’re doing. And I’ve been really proud of my association with them and excited to be a strategic advisor and a clinical advisor for them. So it’s been a fun partnership.
John: Well, Greg, thank you for coming on the show today and explaining what Kindly Human is. Again, for our listeners and viewers, to find Dr. Greg and his colleagues at Kindly Human and to get connected there and to use their services, please go to www.kindlyhuman.com. Greg, I want to first say thank you for your great public service to this country, to the state of Arkansas. It’s an honor to have you on our show today. And thank you also for the new work that you’re doing at Kindly Human. I think with people like you and great technology like Kindly Human. We can help solve the mental health crisis in this country and make a big impact. Thank you again for your time today. You’re always welcome back on this show.
Dr. Bledsoe: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.
John: This episode of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Closed Loop Partners. Closed Loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of Fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts, and Impact partners. Closed Loop’s platform spans the arc of capital from venture capital to private equity, bridging gaps and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy. To find Closed Loop Partners, please go to www.closelooppartners.com. This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.