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Faced with a problem challenging their peers across the nation, leaders at Indiana University Health Tipton Hospital have responded with an innovative program that not only will address their needs but could have an impact that reaches across the state, nation and even globe.
Hospitals that serve largely rural areas, like IU Health Tipton Hospital, have long struggled to attract physicians, but they find it especially difficult to draw to their hospitals surgeons who can provide diverse surgical services. Tipton’s Rural Surgical Fellowship would combat that problem by training surgeons to deliver the kind of surgical-generalist services required in rural settings.
The brainchild of Larry Stevens, MD – who serves as chief medical officer for Indiana University Health Saxony Hospital – and IU Health Tipton Hospital President Mike Harlowe, the program is being funded by grants from the IU Health Foundation, Tipton County Foundation, Lebo Fund for IU Health Tipton Hospital and Hilton Hobbs Healthcare/Tipton Hospital Fund. It would support a surgical fellow who would learn to provide services that patients in small towns and rural areas often can’t get without traveling to a bigger city.
Connie Keung, MD, who is working to implement the Rural Surgical Fellowship at IU Health Tipton Hospital, says that many Tipton-area patients drive to Indianapolis to get routine surgical care, such as hernias and gallbladder operations, and appendectomies. In addition, basic subspecialty care in urology, obstetrics/gynecology and orthopedics are sometimes lacking as well. A Rural Surgical Fellow would train to provide that range of care close to home.
“I think there is something to be said for not having to travel an hour or more for care,” Keung says, pointing out that it’s not just the surgery itself that has to be considered, but also the continuum of surgical care that’s crucial to a successful outcome. “Surgery is not just having surgery and then the surgeon walks away,” she says. “A good portion of our work is the post-op management and making sure the patient recovers and feels comfortable recovering.”
Keung is uniquely equipped to oversee such a program. A Wheaton College grad who earned her medical degree from the Medical School for International Health at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, in Israel, Keung trained in general surgery at Columbia University Medical Center in New York and completed a Colon and Rectal Surgery Fellowship at Brown University in Rhode Island.
But it’s the three years Keung spent working with Indiana University through the AMPATH partnership in Eldoret, Kenya, that really positioned her for her current role. “My background is in helping people who don’t have access to surgery,” she says.
One of about 15 programs across the nation providing rural surgical training, the IU Health Tipton program will train the fellow for one year. The fellow will have access to the expertise of surgeons throughout the IU Health system and academic resources at the IU School of Medicine, Keung notes. There is also the potential for the fellow to earn a master’s degree in business or public health for leadership development.
Perhaps most notably, the fellow would benefit from serving the Tipton community, which Keung says has a solid network of primary care physicians and friendly residents who are eager to show their appreciation for good medical care. Plus, a surgeon could quickly assume an important role in the community. “As a rural surgeon, you become more of a leader in the community and have a say in the direction of how to facilitate health access in that community,” she says, “As sort of the go-to surgeon, you view things from a very different perspective.”
IU Health Tipton Hospital expects to begin interviewing for a fellow in the spring of 2022, with hopes of putting the fellow in place the following year. In the future, the hospital hopes the program can serve as a conduit for placing surgeons in rural settings across Indiana, and – based on her experience – Keung believes surgeons trained here could end up addressing the kind of global needs she saw while in Kenya. Which means a program focused on meeting the needs of Tipton-area residents today could one day benefit citizens of the world.
If you would like to support the Rural Surgical Fellowship, please contribute to the IU Health Tipton Hospital’s “Tipton Area of Greatest Need” fund at https://www.iuhealthfoundation.org/donate.