Leopoldo M. Vocalan Jr., M.D., serves as Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Lancaster General Hospital. We asked Dr. Vocalan about his long journey to practice psychiatry in the United States, the department’s current priorities and his talent for troubleshooting.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up, attended medical school and completed my psychiatry training in the Philippines. I practiced there for about a year. When I decided to come to the United States, approval of my immigration petition took nearly 15 years. I arrived here in 2005, and I was required to complete another psychiatry residency. I worked at a toy store, as a medical assistant, medical transcriptionist and exam paper checker before I began my residency and work toward a Master of Public Health Sciences at Penn State. I joined LG Health Physicians Behavioral Health Specialists in 2010. Our former Chair was my professor at Hershey Medical Center, and she encouraged me to apply for the job. Let's just say I have learned what patience is, and I am thankful every day that I am able to practice cutting-edge psychiatry and raise a family in this country.
How did you choose to specialize in psychiatry?
My dad is also psychiatrist, so the field was very familiar to me. I wanted to choose a specialty that deals with the mind and explores why people think and behave the way they do. I originally thought the answer would be neurology, but for better or worse, psychiatry had most of the answers I was looking for. Psychiatry is also relevant to my day-to-day life. I find it very helpful in navigating personal relationships.
Why did you want to practice medicine in the United States?
Coming to the United States meant being able to learn and practice at the cutting edge of the specialty. We use the latest techniques, modalities and medications here. In the Philippines you can’t prescribe a lot of medications because they are too expensive. One tablet would be two days’ salary for many people.
How did you get into a leadership role?
In the Philippines, it is a common belief that being a clinical physician is just the first step in your career. Eventually you will end up in leadership. Growing and cultivating physician leaders is one of the strengths of LG Health. I tried to take advantage of every opportunity for leadership training and learn as much as I could from my mentors. I became Chair of Psychiatry in early 2019.
What are some of your current priorities in the department?
There is a well-known shortage of psychiatrists nationwide. Recruitment is our No. 1 priority, as well as retention. There are many positives to practicing here, including a good mix of options (outpatient, consultation, etc.), scheduling flexibility and leadership opportunities. This is a good place to raise a family, with a low cost of living. Because of the provider shortage, we are trying to be innovative in expanding our services to reach more patients. We’ve opened our practice to consultations, and we return stable patients to their primary-care providers to increase access. We’ve also improved access in the Emergency Department and ramped up the inpatient census at the new Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital. Finally, we want to get more involved in the community by working with Let’s Talk, Lancaster and other mental health nonprofits.
What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
I like to spend time with my wife Jeni, who is also a physician, and our 19-month-old son. He likes opening drawers and finding new things. He’s climbing on chairs now and can reach pretty much anything. Nothing is safe. I also enjoy working on cars, computers and electronics. There’s something therapeutic about diagnosing what’s wrong with a car and trying to fix it. My staff has learned to come to me with questions regarding troubleshooting any of those things.