Posted 2/16/16 (Tue)
By Neal A. Shipman
Thanks to a Rural Surgery Support Program created by the University of North Dakota Medical School, surgical services will become available at the McKenzie County Hospital in March.
And with the McKenzie County Healthcare System ready to break ground on a new hospital facility this spring, which will include two surgical suites, the timing of bringing a new surgeon on board now to begin building the surgical team couldn’t have happened at a better time.
The Rural Surgery Support Program, which was the first program of its kind in the United States, was developed by Professor Robert Sticca, M.D., chair and program director of the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences Department of Surgery, and is being administered by Dr. Mary Aaland, a surgeon who is also board-certified in trauma and critical care.
“Literally, two years ago, I started looking at the state’s critical access hospitals, like the McKenzie County Hospital, and came to the realization that these facilities could support surgical services,” states Dr. Aaland. “The trouble was that they didn’t have surgeons. And if they did, the surgeons were without any form of backup.”
And providing surgical services and/or backup for existing surgeons in rural hospitals, is exactly the role that the Rural Surgery Support Program intends to accomplish.
“Watford City definitely has the population and infrastructure to support a surgical program,” states Dr. Aaland. “It just needs somebody to help the healthcare system build the surgery program. And that is where I come in.”
According to Dan Kelly, McKenzie County Healthcare Systems CEO, beginning to develop a surgical program to serve the residents of Watford City and McKenzie County is important for several reasons.
“First, with the new hospital opening in two years, we wanted to be able to offer surgical services to our residents,” states Kelly. “Second, we don’t want county residents having to travel out of town for the surgical procedures that we will be able to provide.”
According to Kelly, while Dr. Aaland will begin offering surgical services in March, the healthcare system intends to move forward slowly to ensure quality care.
“For the first three months, Dr. Aaland will be primarily determining what surgical services we can offer in Watford City and begin training our staff on what each of their roles will be when we provide surgery,” states Kelly. “As this develops she will begin providing all endoscopic services, lesion removals, wound care, and other minor surgical procedures.”
A big plus that Kelly sees Dr. Aaland being able to provide in addition to surgical services, is providing surgical consults for county residents that need to have surgery.
“Dr. Aaland has a great working relationship with surgeons around the state,” states Kelly. “So she will be able to provide surgical-related office visits so that residents of McKenzie County could see her to determine if they need surgery regardless of whether it is provided here or elsewhere. And, she will be able to provide follow-up on patients after surgery is performed.”
And bringing that level of surgical service to the McKenzie County Hospital and to other critical access hospitals in North Dakota, according to Aaland, fills a big healthcare void.
“Currently, there are only six communities in North Dakota that have stable surgical services,” states Dr. Aaland. “There are 14 other smaller communities, like Watford City, that could have surgical services.”
While many people think that surgeries can only be done at large hospitals, Dr. Aaland says that because of healthcare advances, that is no longer true.
“Of all the surgeries that are being done, 65 percent are being performed on an out-patient basis,” states Dr. Aaland. “That means that there are no overnight stays. And with a quality surgical team, many of those surgeries could be performed in places like Watford City.”
As a Northwood, N.D. native, and a UND Medical School graduate, Dr. Aaland knows the importance of having quality healthcare available.
“The value that having surgical services in small, rural hospitals is invaluable both to the community and to the healthcare system,” states Dr. Aaland. “Through the Rural Surgery Support Program, we’ve been able to provide backup surgery coverage in Hettinger, Jamestown and Devils Lake. We can provide that same service in Watford City.”
Both Dr. Aaland and Kelly agree that the process of building a surgical program in Watford City will be a slow, step-by-step process.
And for Kelly, the process is all about assembling the right team, and providing the needed training.
“In the past, our current hospital facility has been the major limiting factor when it came to offering surgical services,” states Kelly. “When the new hospital opens, we will have two state-of-the-art surgical suites.”
Which means that between now and when the new hospital opens, Dr. Aaland will be helping the McKenzie County Healthcare Systems develop its surgical program from the ground up.
“While we will have the physical capability of providing surgery when we move into the new building we still need to have trained staff, recruit a surgeon and understand what we can and cannot perform here,” states Kelly. “And if we only recruit one general surgeon, we will still need someone, like Dr. Aaland, to continue to provide that service when our surgeon goes on vacation.”
According to Kelly, Dr. Aaland has offered to help the McKenzie County Healthcare Systems recruit a surgeon.
Beginning in March, Dr. Aaland will begin working in Watford City three days a week during the first week of every month. And she anticipates that by the end of the first year, she will be here a full week each month.
“It’s going to be an adventure,” states Dr. Aaland. “It’s going to take time to build the program. But we will make it work.”