Serving to Lead: Stephen Taylor, MD, has always had one goal – to serve those suffering from addiction.
Stephen Taylor, MD, has always had one goal – to serve those suffering from addiction. Now he’s serving—and leading—as ASAM’s President-Elect
Stephen M. Taylor, MD, MPH, DFAPA, DFASAM, is not just a seasoned medical professional; he is a compassionate servant leader dedicated to addressing the challenges of addiction. From his early childhood realization of a calling to treat addiction to his current role as the president-elect of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), Dr. Taylor has consistently centered his career around service.
From the time he was 5 years old, Dr. Taylor has wanted to treat addiction.
He already knew he wanted to be a doctor, but one day, as he walked with his mother down Sumner Avenue—now Marcus Garvey Boulevard, in Brooklyn, New York -- he encountered a man who clearly needed help.
“He was nodding out from what I now recognize was an opiate—probably heroin,” said Dr. Taylor. “He was very unsteady on his feet. He looked like he might fall over at any moment. I became fascinated by this guy.”
His mother pointed to the man, and said, “This guy is probably no more than 20 years old, but he looks like he’s about 60 and he looks like he’s about to die. This is what drugs do to people. Don’t ever use drugs.”
As Dr. Taylor and his mother waited for the chance to cross the street, he remembers thinking that the man would need a doctor if he were to fall and hit his head.
“My next thought was, ‘Since I want to be a doctor, that’s the kind of doctor I’m going to be. I’m going to be a doctor that helps people like him,’” Dr. Taylor recalled.
Whenever he remembers that moment, he is also moved by what his mother didn’t say. She didn’t describe the man as “disgusting” or blame him for the neighborhood’s problems. She didn’t say he was going to commit crimes to get money to buy drugs.
“All she said was, ‘This is what drugs do to people.’ What I internalized was the sense that people who use drugs are victimized by what drugs do to them, rather than bad people who are engaged in an illegal or bad behavior.”
The Role of a Lifetime
Today, Dr. Taylor, board-certified in general psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and addiction medicine, reflects on the continuity from his early dreams of treating addiction to his recent election as ASAM’s president-elect.
His commitment to service is profound: “Serving means responsibility and that you don’t want to let people down,” said Dr. Taylor. “People talk about ‘servant leadership,’ but the reality is you’re not a leader unless you serve. That is the definition of a leader in my mind: someone who is serving people. That’s important to me.”
Leadership in Action
Prior to his current role, Dr. Taylor spent nearly 30 years building a distinguished career. Dr. Taylor was an honors graduate of Harvard College, with a Master of Public Health degree from the Harvard School of Public Health and a medical degree from Howard University College of Medicine. He spent nearly 30 years building an accomplished career helping people avoid or overcome addiction disorders and co-occurring general psychiatric disorders. He currently serves as the chief medical officer of Pathway Healthcare, a company that has opened and is operating 17 outpatient addiction and mental health treatment offices across Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas, and is preparing to open additional offices in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Virginia.
Dr. Taylor is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). Beyond his recent involvement in ASAM national volunteer opportunities, he has served as president of the Alabama Society of Addiction Medicine (ALSAM), the Alabama state chapter of ASAM. He currently serves as Chair of ASAM's Delegation to the AMA House of Delegates. He is a former director of the ASAM Region X and thus an active member of the ASAM Chapter’s Council and ASAM Board of Directors.
For 16 years, Dr. Taylor also served as the Medical Director of the Player Assistance and Anti-Drug Program of the National Basketball Association and the National Basketball Players Association.
Dr. Taylor reflects on his experience serving as a member of the ASAM Board of Directors as thus far “being ‘a kid in a candy store’ – if the ‘candy’ you love is that unique combination of diversity, brilliance, and dedication to people with SUD” that characterizes the members of the ASAM Board. From the keen intellect and thoughtful leadership of ASAM President, Dr. Brian Hurley -- who, Dr. Taylor jokes, “has probably forgotten more about Parliamentary Procedure than I’ll ever know” -- to numerous leaders in addiction medicine all over the country, and from various specialties and rich experiences, Dr. Taylor feels privileged to have the opportunity to learn “like a sponge” every time he participates in the ASAM Board’s activities. “And,” he added, “Don’t even get me started on ASAM’s staff, which includes some of the most impressive individuals I have ever met, and constitutes the incredible driving engine behind everything we’ve ever done!”
A Call to Action
Dr. Taylor said he has enjoyed his first six months as president-elect “immensely.” One month into his term, he testified before the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions’ Subcommittee on Primary Health and Retirement Security, to advocate for expanding access to treatment. In his testimony, Dr. Taylor called for greater patient access to methadone, and an expansion of the addiction treatment workforce so people living in underserved communities can receive quality care. He did all of this while remembering the man he encountered on the street as a young boy.
“[Being president-elect] is the realization of something I’ve always wanted to do and something I’ve felt is very important to do,” he said. “This position now affords me an enhanced opportunity to serve those with addiction.”
When he looks back on his career, Dr. Taylor can see numerous ways ASAM has had a deep and lasting influence on its progression. He attended ASAM’s Annual Conference in the early 2000s when the FDA approved buprenorphine.
“I was among the first cohort of doctors who sat down at an ASAM meeting and heard about this new medication that could be used to treat people with OUD,” he said.
During another Annual Conference, Dr. Taylor took a course to become a certified medical review officer.
“I saw the MRO course and it seemed like it might be interesting,” he said. “Lo and behold, taking that course was one of the things that helped me get my job with the National Basketball Association.”
He also happened to attend meetings where the American Board of Addiction Medicine was formed, and he witnessed ASAM’s successful efforts to obtain recognition of addiction medicine as an official subspecialty by the American Board of Medical Specialties
“Every step of the way, in terms of my career and my learning about addiction medicine, ASAM has been incredibly important,” he added.
For that reason, Dr. Taylor does everything he can to give back. An example of his dedication to ASAM can be found on his Facebook page. During the summer of 2023, Dr. Taylor created a fundraiser for ASAM to coincide with his birthday.
Challenges and Advocacy
While ASAM and the field of addiction medicine face numerous challenges, Dr. Taylor said the biggest challenge is also the oldest: the stigma of addiction.
“It remains a major problem,” he said. “We have to continue to hammer away at it, because it’s not going to just go away.”
Stigma, Dr. Taylor said, manifests itself in many ways.
Even among those recovering from addiction, he said, it’s not uncommon for an individual on medication for opioid use disorder (OUD) to hear from someone in a 12-step program that they’re not really in recovery if they’re on medication.
“That kind of stigma, even within the recovery community, can have a damaging effect,” he said.
When it comes to the challenges that people with addiction—especially adolescents--face, Dr. Taylor said the main issue is lack of information. Today, drugs are often laced or contaminated with other substances.
“Parents used to try to scare their kids into not using drugs by exaggerating the potential dangers of drug use,” he said. “[They’d say], just one time could kill you. Well, today, that’s actually not an exaggeration. The one time you pop a Xanax or what you think is a Xanax, because it’s actually laced with fentanyl, could kill you. That’s a horrible challenge that people who use drugs are facing now.”
Looking to the Future
When it comes to the next generation, Dr. Taylor encourages early career physicians to leverage their ASAM membership.
“ASAM membership comes with a tremendous number of benefits,” he said. “Certification in addiction medicine is a credential that is helpful to your career and will allow you to serve your patients more profoundly. Becoming an active member of ASAM and learning about addiction and addiction medicine will empower you to be able to recognize those folks and provide them with an expert level of care.”
Dr. Taylor also encourages early career addiction medicine specialists to reject the idea that they must enter a specialty just because it pays the most.
“I would caution medical students against having that be the formula that determines what specialty they pursue,” he said. “Instead, I would suggest that they take a good look at what will put them in the position to help the most people.”
Dr. Taylor said addiction medicine is applicable to any field of medicine. If a medical student wishes to become an anesthesiologist, psychiatrist, family physician, obstetrician-gynecologist, or pediatrician, addiction medicine should still be a focus. Everyone in the medical community is needed in the ongoing battle against the perils of addiction—the same perils a young Dr. Taylor witnessed on the streets of Brooklyn.
“No matter what brand of health care professional you are, no matter what designation or certification you have as a health care professional, you cannot go wrong treating people who have this disease of addiction,” Dr. Taylor said.
“Several hundred thousand people per year in our country die from addiction to substances. So, as a health care professional of any stripe, there are few things you can do that will have a greater public health impact and a greater impact on society than working in addiction medicine."