Helping Patients See the Sunlight

Dr. Joe Cannavo
Addiction Psychiatrist

The state of Colorado is said to offer more than 300 days of sunshine each year. Dr. Joe Cannavo, an addiction psychiatrist, now shares that sunlight with Kaiser Permanente members on a daily basis.

Having studied philosophy and physics at the City University of New York’s Queens College, Dr. Cannavo had a longstanding interest in the mind and psychology. He thought early on about becoming a psychiatrist and attended the University of Michigan Medical School. Dr. Cannavo was also intrigued by the hands-on nature of emergency medicine.

“I decided to do a residency for emergency medicine at the North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York. I became increasingly interested in treating addiction because I encountered many addicts in the ER. It turns out that I never practiced as an attending ER physician because I chose to shift my focus and complete a residency in psychiatry, followed by a fellowship in addiction psychiatry,” says Dr. Cannavo.

Dr. Cannavo went on to run a detox unit in New York City and served as the head of Addiction Services for a New York hospital system. He also had a private psychotherapy practice, where he treated patients for 10 hours a week on nights and weekends.

“One of the more challenging aspects of my work in New York was coordinating care with other providers. I spent a lot of time making phone calls and tracking people down the old-school way. It was also stressful battling with the financial side of medicine and working with outside payers.” 

Dr. Cannavo found himself seeking a less cumbersome way of practicing psychiatry and a more balanced lifestyle for him to enjoy time with his wife and young children. It was on a cross-country road trip with his wife that he fell in love with the West.

“I really wanted a complete change in the kind of life I was living. New York City is exquisite but it can be exhausting. I love the balance of Denver because there’s still a city, but you have every outdoor activity that you could want very accessible. When I’m not working, I’m hiking and mountain biking.”

Dr. Cannavo also discovered great relief in his practice when he joined Colorado Permanente Medical Group in 2013.

“There is a high level of integration at Kaiser Permanente that I’ve found extremely powerful to experience. The electronic medical records facilitate that to a great degree, and the pressure of dealing with various insurance companies and other payers isn’t on my plate,” comments Dr. Cannavo.

“I was also really impressed by the quality of the physicians at CPMG. We work together and communicate well. As a psychiatrist, it’s nice to have a clearly defined role and to have a therapist as part of the team. I’m given ample time to see and treat my patients. I also appreciate the pharmacological support. They’re just down the hall and provide significant expertise.”

The salaried structure that CPMG offers to physicians also has several benefits.

“In private practice, you can make as much money as you want if you’re willing to put in the hours. You end up overworked but well compensated. At CPMG, I still feel that I’m paid well but I work more reasonable hours. With the benefits and retirement plan, it’s really the whole package. Most importantly, I can be present for my family.”

Beyond having a successful career, Dr. Cannavo is most passionate about the impact he can make on his patients’ lives.

“I had a generic picture hanging in my office. One of my patients noticed it and thought it was hideous. She had struggled with alcoholism for most of her life, and she was finally getting to a healthy place. She didn’t need to come in as often, but the last time I saw her, she brought me a big package. It was a picture of Canyonlands National Park and the Anasazi ruins, taken from a cave and looking out into the sunlight. She told me that the treatment we gave her ultimately gave her hope to see the sunlight. It’s patients like her that make me feel I did something worthwhile with my day and that I earned my humanity. Her gift now hangs on the wall in my office and is a daily reminder of why I’m here.”    

To learn more about Dr. Cannavo’s work to provide addiction treatment services, read part one of his story.

To learn more about working for CPMG, click here