Fellowship Arises From Collaboration

May 16, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — DeVos Children's Hospital has received accreditation for a pediatric fellowship program that teams with the Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) to train the next generation of doctors in the diagnosis and treatment of childhood cancers and blood disorders.

It is DeVos Children's Hospital's first pediatric fellowship program and the state's only pediatric oncology/hematology fellowship program outside of southeast Michigan. DeVos Children's is the only Grand Rapids hospital with a pediatric residency program.

The hospital will recruit one fellow a year for the three-year training program, which begins July 2004. The children's hospital and VARI jointly designed the program and jointly applied for accreditation.

"To be approved for the fellowship indicates a certain degree of recognition in terms of the quality of medical care and the medical training that's available here in the Grand Rapids area," said Albert Cornelius, M.D., director of outreach and education for the division of pediatric oncology. Cornelius will direct the fellowship program.

"I think it's a very important step toward national recognition. It really puts Grand Rapids' medical community and the Van Andel Institute on the map."

Kent Bottles, M.D., CEO of Grand Rapids Medical Education and Research Center (MERC), referred to the program's accreditation as "another quantum leap forward" for the medical education community and its collaborative programs.

"It's my hope and belief that this will be the first of many adult and pediatric training fellowships in Grand Rapids," Bottles said.

During the first year and a half, the fellow physician will concentrate on patient care and during the remaining year and a half will work directly with VARI cancer biologists and geneticists on research.

Fellowship training has to have both a clinical and research component, so the joint venture between the hospital and VARI is a very natural partnership, Cornelius said.

It's a unique partnership, too, in that it's a collaboration between two separate institutions, whereas most fellowship programs are university based, and the clinical care and research training are typically carried out under the same university umbrella.

Cornelius believes partnerships between clinical institutions and private sector research entities are the wave of the future.

"In my opinion this is probably a new paradigm for how medical training and specialized medical research is going to be done in the future," he said. "No longer will it only be the purview of the big universities and the government grants. You'll see more and more of this in the years to come."

George Vande Woude, director of VARI, said assisting in the training of new pediatric hematologists and oncologists is one of the ways the institute is fulfilling its "obligation and responsibility to the community."

Previously, VARI lectures were open to area medical residents but residents did not have access to all the powerful technologies in application at VARI, Vande Woude said.

"It's a missed opportunity if young physicians don't have an exposure to the power of these technologies," he said. "In the portion of training that will be here, they'll have that opportunity.

"They'll also have an opportunity to contribute to the research that is ongoing. We can see, for example, where they could be involved in helping to discover genes that are involved in specific types of human cancer."

Vande Woude said the fellowship program also will help improve the quality of physicians attracted to this area.

He anticipates physicians from all over the world will apply for the fellowships because that has been the case with the institute's own training programs. The institute's scientific investigators and post doctorates represent a dozen different countries.

He believes the collaborations among area hospitals, physicians and surgeons help make Grand Rapids "very special" for translating discoveries into medical practice.

To qualify for the fellowship, candidates have to have completed their pediatric residency and have a desire to sub-specialize in hematology and oncology. Candidates will apply directly to DeVos Children's Hospital, and a selection committee that includes VARI representatives will choose from among them.

Cornelius estimates it will cost in the neighborhood of $100,000 per physician for three years of fellowship training.

The long-term value of that investment? Perhaps priceless.

"The value of that training is really hard to put a number on because we believe in the end we will have physicians that are well trained in clinical care but also have a very sound research foundation and will go on to make continued contributions and advancements in medical science, particularly in the area of pediatric hematology and oncology."

On the research side, fellows will be encouraged to apply for grant funding, which will most likely be in conjunction with scientific investigators at VARI, Cornelius said. Any grant funding secured through either government or private agencies would be used to offset the fellow's salary, but securing a grant is not a requirement, he noted.

MERC will help administer the "nuts and bolts" of the program and pay fellows' salaries through an endowment fund set up by the DeVos family when the children's hospital was born 12 years ago.

"The hope was that the hospital would eventually have fellowship training, and funds were set aside at that time for research purposes," Cornelius explained.

Right now, the children's hospital has a very busy pediatric hematology and oncology service, Cornelius said. In fact, it's the largest such service in Michigan.

Cornelius said he couldn't project what the need for pediatric sub-specialists would be in the future. But as more and more patients receive medical care here instead of traveling elsewhere, the need may increase, he said.   

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