Interview with LalithKumar Solai, M.D., the new vice chair for the Department of Psychiatry

Physician stands outside in front of psychiatry building at MUSC.

Before joining MUSC Health, LalithKumar Solai, M.D., worked in Pennsylvania at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where he completed his training in geriatric psychiatry and later became the chief of geriatric psychiatry. Solai is passionate about offering mental health support and services to an older patient population, and he recently brought his considerable talents to Charleston as the new mental health chief as well as the new vice chair for the Department of Psychiatry at MUSC Health.

Progressnotes sat down with him recently to hear more about his story.

Dr. Solai, what was your path from Pittsburgh to MUSC?

After completing my training in psychiatry and my fellowship in geriatric psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, I joined their staff as the medical director for one of the community clinics. Next, I moved onto the academic center, where I was the medical director of consultation liaison services for the hospital and later became the chief of geriatric psychiatry. I was running both the geriatric and the interventional psychiatry division there before I decided it was time for a change, and MUSC Health was the perfect fit for me as it provided an opportunity to grow in a leadership role. I am very excited to be here.

What sparked your interest in geriatric psychiatry?

I actually began my residency in psychiatry thinking I was going to become a child psychiatrist. But when I started meeting with different patients, I realized that my older patients had a bigger impact on me. They often had little support when it came to their health issues and I wanted to become an advocate for their needs. One of my early mentors Dr. Antoun Manganas was a geriatric psychiatrist, and he played a significant role in piquing my interest in the field.

How has the mental health field changed in recent years?

In geriatric psychiatry, I work primarily in providing clinical care within nursing homes. In the past, that would have meant my patients were between 75 and 80 years old. But in the last 25 years, the population of nursing home patients have gotten significantly older, and I now often see 90-year-old patients. As we have learned more about psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, we have become better at treating patients affected by them. They are now living longer, but that also means more people with psychiatric disorders are needing nursing home level of care.

In Pittsburgh, I partnered with a local nursing home to open a nursing home unit specifically designed to cater to the psychiatric patients because the staff was not equipped to handle their unique care on their own. It made significant difference in these patients’ overall psychiatric and medical stabilization. Being able to create a program like that was very gratifying, and I hope to do something similar with MUSC.

What are some changes you’d like to make in terms of mental health treatment in South Carolina?

One of the biggest challenges we face in mental health today is that we don’t have enough psychiatrists. With these limited resources, mental health has started being delivered by others. And by others, I mean nurse practitioners, physician assistants and social workers. In South Carolina, the number of social workers going to school to also become counselors is trending up. I want to embrace this trend and use it to help our patients, and I see the most important place for these new skills is in primary care. That way, if a patient goes in to see their primary care physician and needs counseling as well, they can go down the hall and get the help they need through a trained counselor. That would likely take care of a significant number of people with immediate mental health needs. The remainder could then see a psychiatrist if needed. Hopefully this plan will address some of the mental health needs in South Carolina.

The department of psychiatry at MUSC is also a leading research center, studying some of the latest diagnostic and treatment options in mental health. I believe we have the opportunity to position ourselves to become a destination program in the state in certain areas within mental health.

What is the mental health ICCE at MUSC? What roles does the ICCE support?

At MUSC Health we have service lines for each division, and it’s part of our Integrated Centers of Clinical Excellence (ICCE) program. I am the mental health ICCE chief as well as the vice chair for the Department of Psychiatry. The Mental Health ICCE supports all the inpatient, emergency, and hospital-run clinical services within mental health. There is also the research and the educational divisions of psychiatry which fall under the department of psychiatry. As the vice chair I have a leadership role within the department too, but my overall responsibility is to oversee all the clinical operations in mental health — both locally and regionally.

What excites you most about working for MUSC?

At my previous position, I felt like my full potential was not being realized. MUSC Health provided that exact opportunity for me with this position. I plan to take my past experiences and apply them at a larger scale to our health system. I am excited to help set the tone for clinical delivery services in mental health — not just in Charleston but across our regional health networks.

What are some things you’re interested in outside of work?

I like to spend time with my family – I particularly like to goof off with my kids, who are 16 and 18. Living in Pittsburgh for so long really got me into sports as well. I’m a diehard Penguins fan as well as a Steelers fan. I love music, too. I listen to all kinds, but I particularly enjoy classic rock music. Lately throughout the pandemic, I have developed interest in working out regularly too.