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March 2011 Issue

Rekha Chaudhary, MD Associate Director, Fellowship Program
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Hematology Oncology Fellowship Program Creates Top Notch Experts

By Amanda Harper
Published March 2011

Turning out competent physicians is a given goal of any fellowship program. But training innovative thinkers—clinician-scientists capable of providing excellent care while also translating problems observed in the clinic to information that can improve the lives of cancer patients—sets an entirely different standard of excellence.

Under the direction of George Atweh, MD, and Rekha Chaudhary, MD, UC’s hematology oncology fellowship program has been revamped with the specific aim of creating top-notch medical oncologists who are equipped with the skills—and desire—to pursue careers in academic medicine.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) estimates that by 2020, the demand for oncology services will significantly outpace the supply of oncologists available to provide patient care. ASCO reports that the demand for oncology services will increase by nearly 50 percent, translating into a shortage as high as 3,800 oncologists.

To address this pending shortage, UC’s hematology oncology fellowship program will expand from nine fellows to 12 in 2012. So far, the program has received 286 applications for three positions.
By adding additional fellows, UC can offer trainees more protected time to pursue translational and clinical research interests.

"Our fellowship program is gaining traction nationally; we are attracting truly excellent candidates. Many have both MD and PhD training and come with significant research experience as well as an already defined oncology focus,” says Chaudhary, who currently serves as associate director of the fellowship program and will become director in July 2011.

Frank Smith, MD, professor of pediatrics at the College of Medicine and a medical oncologist with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, will assume associate directorship at that time.

The hope, says Chaudhary, is to retain some of these bright minds here in Greater Cincinnati, where the cancer research and patient care initiative continues to grow through the UC Cancer Institute.

Mahmoud Charif, MD, completed his hematology oncology fellowship at UC in 2010 and joined faculty afterward.

"The next generation of academic oncologists must straddle the line between clinical care and research. We need people who can communicate with patients in a way that is understandable but also go back to their colleagues in basic science and articulate the clinical problem so that it can be investigated and, eventually, addressed in a patient care setting,” adds Chaudhary.

In the refocused fellowship program, trainees hear from guest speakers—both local and national thought leaders—every Friday during grand rounds. Once a week, UC Academic Health Center faculty from various departments give lectures on topics ranging from developing a clinical trial protocol and statistical analysis to patient survivorship issues and palliative care. Twice a week, fellows present on a topic of their choice to peers and faculty mentors.

"For the past two years, we have made an aggressive effort to recruit additional hematology oncology faculty—particularly senior-level people like Olivier Rixe, MD, PhD, and John Morris, MD—who can serve as mentors to our fellows,” says Atweh, hematology oncology division chief and director of the UC Cancer Institute.

Fellows also get extensive hands-on care experience by coordinating care for patients seeking treatment at weekly continuity of care clinics at the UC Health Barrett Cancer Center and Cincinnati Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

"This experience is a really important part of their education because it allows you to see the full spectrum of the disease: diagnosis, treatment, relapse and second-line treatment and, eventually, palliative care. If you don’t see entire spectrum with a single patient and it is very hard to learn,” says Chaudhary.

One Fellow’s Perspective: ‘It’s a much more valuable experience…’

Chief hematology oncology fellow Shalaan Beg, MD, says this shift to focus on both patient care and translational research has made his fellowship experience more intellectually stimulating and engaging.

"In the past, it was tough to find collaborators to explore research ideas. Now we are able make the right connections and get the ball rolling on clinically relevant research ideas that come up in the clinic,” says Beg, who also completed his internal medicine residency at the UC College of Medicine.

"It’s one thing to be told how to set up a clinical trial—it’s a much more valuable experience to be a part of the process from start to finish, which is what the new fellowship program allows us to do."

"The fellowship program has a higher prestige than it did just a few years ago. Cincinnati is on the cancer radar at oncology meetings now.”

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