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Meet Dr. Michele Tsai Owens, Riley’s first pediatric cardiology psychologist

Dr. Michele Tsai Owens
Dr. Michele Tsai Owens, Riley’s first pediatric cardiology psychologist

As Riley Children’s Foundation celebrates National Mental Health Awareness Month throughout May, we want to introduce you to Michele Tsai Owens, PhD, HSPP.

In March 2024, Riley Children’s Health welcomed Dr. Tsai Owens as the first psychologist in the Pediatric Cardiology department at Riley. She is also the first pediatric psychologist to offer dedicated care to pediatric cardiology patients in Indiana. Thanks to our Riley donors, we’re able to support Dr. Tsai Owens and Riley Children’s Health mental health programs as they continue to address the child and adolescent mental health crisis.

A former Riley kid herself, Dr. Tsai Owens grew up benefiting from the expert care of the Riley Pediatric Cardiology team. “The dedicated doctors and nurses took excellent care of my congenital heart disease when I was growing up in Indiana,” Dr. Tsai Owens said. “I am so grateful that I can, in a sense, give back to the Riley Cardiology team and help this team continue to redefine the standard of excellent pediatric cardiac care in this state.”

We were able to talk with Dr. Tsai Owens and learn more about her work and passion for working with families and Riley teams.

What does a day in your life look like as a Riley pediatric psychologist in the division of Pediatric Cardiology?

As a pediatric cardiac psychologist, I work with young people with heart conditions and their families both in the outpatient and inpatient settings. On some days, I meet with patients and families during their outpatient appointment with their cardiologist to assess how the child is doing emotionally, socially, and academically. I discuss ways in which families can continue to promote their child’s resilience, and when needed, I help patients connect to psychotherapeutic and psychiatric services. I also meet with patients outside of their medical appointments for short-term therapy services focused on coping with and managing their heart condition. On other days, I meet with patients who are hospitalized in the cardiac intensive care unit or the cardiac inpatient unit at Riley when their family or their medical team identifies a behavioral health need.

Whether I am working with patients and their families in the outpatient clinics or in the hospital, I start by listening to families’ concerns, which helps me develop a better understanding of their child. I work together with families to develop a plan for addressing their child’s needs, and we continue to work together to achieve the goals we have for supporting their child in living with a heart condition. With families’ permission, I communicate with the patient’s cardiologist and other healthcare team members so that, as a team, we can provide the best care for the patient.

In addition to caring for patients and families, I serve as a faculty member of the Indiana University School of Medicine, educating doctoral- and post-doctoral pediatric psychology learners and conducting research related to the behavioral health needs of young people with heart conditions. I will also have opportunities to help pediatric cardiology fellows learn about the behavioral health needs of their patients.

Why is it crucial to provide mental health services to children with complex medical conditions, such as children with congenital heart disease or other heart conditions?

Research indicates that children with complex medical conditions are at higher risk for experiencing emotional and behavioral challenges. Additionally, children with some types of congenital heart disease or other long-term heart conditions are at higher risk for neurodevelopmental and learning differences, as there can be genetic syndromes that affect both heart and brain development and/or difficulties with the heart can affect how the brain functions. Guidelines for comprehensive care for patients with these complex heart conditions include neurodevelopmental and psychological screening so that medical teams can identify challenges early on. Providing appropriate mental health services when challenges are detected early on can help support patients’ emotional resilience, their learning and social development, and their ability to manage their complex heart conditions.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I am fortunate that I love the three main parts of my job, which are to work together with families and their healthcare teams to take care of patients, to train future pediatric psychologists and spark their interest in working with patients with heart conditions, and to work with wonderful teams of medical and psychosocial colleagues to conduct research that will improve our approaches to meeting the behavioral health needs of cardiac patients. Patients and their families inspire me with their resilience. Pediatric psychology learners are dedicated and eager to provide patients with the best evidence-based behavioral health care. And the research efforts within our hospital and in collaboration with other hospitals ensure that we continue to improve the lives of patients currently in our care and in the future.

If you could share a message with Riley Children’s Foundation donors who help make your work possible, what would you say?

Thank you for investing in comprehensive care to address the full range of medical, developmental, and psychosocial needs of our cardiac patients! Your generosity has allowed Riley to be one of a small number of pediatric cardiology programs in the country that offers dedicated psychological services to our patients. Medical advances have significantly improved the survival of young people with complex cardiac conditions, and the medical and psychological fields both recognize the increasingly complex neurodevelopmental and psychological needs of these patients. Through better addressing these needs, we hope to continue to raise the standard of our patients’ quality of life.