Benjamin Lai, M.B., B.Ch., B.A.O.

Consultant, Family Medicine

Assistant Professor of Family Medicine, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science

Dr. Lai was always fascinated by the human body and the idea of developing and using knowledge about the body to improve others' lives. But the moment that fully energized him toward this path was when he saved his mother's life.

While in medical school, he enjoyed a month-long clerkship at Mayo Clinic and then a family medicine residency. In 2018, after working in rural health care in California, Dr. Lai returned to Mayo Clinic to continue advancing his knowledge through research and practice.

Dr. Lai's research revolves around:

  • Collecting and evaluating data from nurses and health care providers to develop medication-assisted treatment clinic processes
  • Tracking patient enrollment, relapse and attrition rates
  • Recommending process improvements scalable for medication-assisted treatment clinic practices

What moment or experience in your life influenced your decision to be a clinician?

I have always had an inkling of wanting to be in the health care profession. I was fascinated with the human body at a young age, and in the idea of using my knowledge of the human body to improve other people's lives in meaningful ways.

In high school, I had an opportunity to shadow a hospitalist for a week. I was fascinated by the number of people he got to meet on a daily basis, the relationships he was able to develop with his patients and their families, and the fact that he got to do something different every day, such as seeing different patients with different pathologies. Despite the long hours and being constantly on my feet, it was one of the most fulfilling and gratifying experiences I had up until then.

Looking back, I think the event that sealed the deal for me wanting to be a clinician was saving my mother's life during the winter break of my sophomore year in college. It was early one morning and everyone in the house was still sleeping when I heard a thump in the kitchen and my mother gasping. She was choking.

I had to perform the Heimlich maneuver on my mother for what seemed like an eternity. At the same time that I was trying to save her, I was in disbelief at the whole situation — fearing that I wouldn't be able to save her, but also surprised at the strong instinct to step in and do what I knew how to do.

Thankfully, my attempt to save my mother was successful. It was her birthday the next day, and we went to her favorite restaurant to celebrate life. I knew then that there was nothing I wanted to do more than to be a clinician.

What motivated you to become a Population Health Science Scholar?

After I completed my family medicine residency at Mayo Clinic, I worked in a rural community in Northern California. Many of my patients were prescribed large doses of opioids for chronic pain. Others had complex medical and psychiatric co-morbidities as well as substance use disorders. I soon learned that the handful of health care providers in the area — both specialists and primary care providers — were oversubscribed, with waitlists of up to a year.

I quickly realized that the current model of care is unsustainable. As I took care of my patients on chronic opioids for noncancer pain and those with substance use disorders, I struggled to refer them to pain medicine experts, behavioral health and addiction services, social work, or other appropriate specialties.

My interest in telemedicine came out of my three-year experience practicing in this rural community. I knew there had to be better ways to reach a larger population in need of health care services, especially in the fields of primary care, addiction medicine and behavioral health.

When I returned to Mayo Clinic in 2018, I became interested in researching ways to improve access to addiction psychiatry, counseling services and medication-assisted therapy for opioid use disorder for patients who live in underserved regions. I wanted to explore ways to improve access to Mayo Clinic's world-class specialists for those living in rural communities.

When I learned about the Population Health Science Scholars Program, I knew this would be the perfect fit for me to explore my research interests. With encouragement from my mentors and colleagues, I applied and am honored to be a part of this extraordinary program.

What is your focus as a scholar within the Mayo Clinic Kern Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery?

I'm studying methods of health care delivery beyond the clinic as they pertain to managing patients on chronic opioids for noncancer pain as well as those who struggle with substance use disorders. This is especially important for patients with unreliable transportation or unstable housing and for those who live in remote communities where access to health care is scarce.

I'm researching methods to improve access to medication-assisted therapy for opioid use disorder, as well as behavioral health and addictions services to help vulnerable populations in underserved communities through sustainable and innovative telemedicine technologies.

How will your research improve patient care or impact public health?

So much of the opioid epidemic occurs in regions that are rural, underserved or both, and the COVID-19 pandemic has fueled an increase in opioid overdoses.

My research will improve patient care by expanding access to much-needed substance use disorder treatment services in underserved communities. Substance use is often associated with economic instability, unemployment or underemployment, criminality, infectious disease, and other long-term health problems. Improving access to substance use disorder treatment would not only improve the health and social stability of these communities, but also reduce the rates of fatal overdoses.

Why did you choose Mayo Clinic to pursue your career?

In medical school, I had several mentors who received their training at Mayo Clinic, and they all spoke very favorably of their experiences. I decided to apply for a visiting student clerkship at Mayo Clinic and was fortunate enough to be accepted.

My four-week clerkship was better than I could have ever imagined. The multidisciplinary collaboration that's commonplace at Mayo Clinic was an entirely novel concept to me. Everyone I met was willing to teach and willing to learn — all to provide optimal patient care and advance knowledge. I thoroughly enjoyed and thrived in this teamwork-based culture.

I knew I had to come back — and so I did! I received fantastic training and mentorship in clinical practice, research, teaching and leadership during my Family Medicine Residency. I am honored to be back at Mayo Clinic, working with world-class researchers, teachers, mentors and clinicians.