A long-time goal, officials say recruitment of additional pediatric surgeons was a team effort

David Floyd • May 17, 2020 at 6:00 AM

On a national scale, Dr. William Block, dean of the ETSU Quillen College of Medicine, estimates the field of pediatric surgery only produces about 45 practitioners every year.

It’s a small pool to draw from, but after years of recruitment efforts, the local workforce has now become a bit bigger.

A step that health officials anticipate will enhance available programs for children in the region, Niswonger Children’s Hospital and East Tennessee State University announced the recruitment of two new pediatric surgeons on Friday, which Ballad Health officials say marks the first time in decades that there will be as many as three operating in the region.

“Pediatric surgery has been one of the fields that for a few decades we’ve had a really difficult time in supplying the region with an adequate number of surgeons,” Block told the Johnson City Press on Friday. “We typically have been able to maintain one pediatric surgeon for all of the Tri-Cities just based on the number of candidates that are out there nationally.”

Attracted through a joint effort between ETSU and Ballad Health, Dr. Michael Allshouse, who most recently served as the medical director of the pediatric surgery and trauma programs at Valley Children’s Hospital, and Dr. Brad Feltis, who previously worked as a pediatric surgeon and partner with Pediatric Surgical Associates in Minneapolis, have agreed to join the faculty at ETSU’s Quillen College of Medicine and the team at Niswonger Children’s Hospital.

They will begin practicing in July and will join Dr. Lesli Taylor in the ETSU Division of Pediatric Surgery.

Ballad said Friday the recruitment is supported in part by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed budget to create additional faculty positions at the ETSU Quillen College of Medicine for training in pediatric surgery.

“Dr. Taylor has been here by herself for many years, and there’s certainly times when she’s unavailable just by virtue of being a solo practicing surgeon,” Block said, “and so what the partnership with Ballad and the state has allowed us to be able to do is recruit two additional experienced pediatric surgeons that will bring us up to the compliment of three people that it really requires to have adequate 24/7 call for the region.”

Block said the university couldn’t have recruited Allshouse and Feltis on its own.

“We’ve probably had positions posted for many, many years, and it’s just been of late that we’ve been able to have some increased state support and with the merger of Ballad and the consolidation of the (neonatal intensive care unit) and the consolidation of the trauma program that all the pieces have been put together to where we were able to step up to this level,” Block said. “It certainly helps not having competing NICUs in a region this size.”

Before the merger, Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine said the competitiveness between Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System made it difficult to recruit surgeons, noting that Wellmont would generally not support referrals to doctors affiliated with Mountain States.

“Even if we could get the surgeons to come and look at us, what they would see was that there was not enough support in the region to support the critical mass you need to support more than one surgeon,” he said.

Beyond clinical tasks, Levine added that Allshouse and Feltis will also help with instruction.

“It’s kind of hard for one pediatric surgeon by herself to be able to to do all the clinical work and provide good teaching,” Levine said. “There’s only so much one person can do. Now we’ve got three highly qualified surgeons, each of them having a very different skillset.”

Allshouse has a background in pediatric trauma surgery and treating burns, and Feltis brings experience in research, education and fetal surgical science.

As the only pediatric surgeon in a 29-county area, Levine said Taylor’s efforts to serve the region have been heroic. The region has been fortunate, he said, but that model isn’t sustainable and it’s not the best practice.

“The best practice is to have at least a couple but three surgeons that can cross-cover each other — make sure that each one of them gets the appropriate amount of rest, each one can rely on sometimes another set of eyes and hands to assist or get a second opinion on a case,” Levine said. “This elevates the level of quality and stability beyond anything we’ve been able to do since the creation of the children’s hospital. It’s a big deal.”

Levine said the recruitment of Allshouse and Feltis is just one example of a larger, symbiotic partnership between ETSU and Ballad Health, pointing out that the university’s surgeons also run Ballad’s Level 1 trauma center and ETSU’s physicians staff and manage the system’s neonatal intensive care unit.

“This successful recruitment is a manifestation of years and years worth of effort to build bridges between Ballad Health and ETSU,” Levine said. “We’re really committed to that, and I think more good things are coming from that.”

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