On April 28, the Mississippi Institutes of Higher Learning approved a historic affiliation agreement between Methodist Rehabilitation Center and the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
In the months since, attention has mainly centered on the short-term impact of the agreement—consolidation of inpatient rehabilitation services at MRC and the transfer of patients and staff by Nov. 1.
But behind the scenes, visionaries from both organizations have been focusing on the long view as they consider big picture goals for the partnership. What they’ve imagined is a powerful new model for neuroscience research, education and clinical care in Mississippi.
“We’re working to bring our complementary strengths and capabilities together to form a neuroscience institute that will pave the way for expanded specialized services, stronger educational programs and more nationally competitive research,” said Methodist Rehab CEO Mark Adams. “Together, we have all the basic components and talent to build a noteworthy neuroscience institute that raises the bar for other similar institutes to follow. Now, we have the affiliation agreement and framework to make it happen.”
“We’ll make each other better,” predicts Dr. James E. Keeton, UMMC’s vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “With the resources and expertise we have on both sides of this deal, a top-rank institute is readily achievable and will bring enormous benefits to our trainees and our patients.”
As the two entities align their expertise, many are pondering what will be possible as the affiliation progresses. And none more so than Michael Lehman, Ph.D.
Lehman has been building the framework for a neuroscience institute since he became professor and chairman of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomical Sciences at UMMC in July 2012.
“Part of my perspective as a neuroscientist is that to understand the brain and brain disease, you need to ignore the traditional boundaries that exist,” Lehman said. “I really see my role here as being a leader and advocate for growing neuroscience and patient care and education across all boundaries.”
To that end, Lehman formed an interdepartmental working group in the spring of 2013 with representatives from nine different UMMC departments, centers and schools. Dr. Dobrivoje Stokic, MRC’s administrative director of research, is now a member, as well.
“We wanted to fold MRC in from the very start in this change process because we knew MRC was going to be a partner for us,” said Lehman, who now chairs the group. “I was very excited because I knew MRC’s reputation.”
The affiliation allows both organizations to remain independent, with a shared goal of fostering collaboration in the areas of neuroscience research, clinical care and education. The affiliation includes plans for a UMMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and eventually an associated residency program.
While many elements of the affiliation will take some time to implement, Mississippi residents should be the earliest benefactors of the partnership. And that’s important in a state where the rate of stroke, brain and spinal injury are among the highest in the nation.
“A combined effort under one roof will give a much better patient experience,” said Dr. Louis Harkey, department chair and professor of neurosurgery at UMMC.
As part of the affiliation, MRC’s physicians and nurse practitioners will join the staff of UMMC. And the new dynamic will help provide a more coordinated plan of treatment for patients transitioning from acute care to the rehab setting.
“I foresee better access to many different medical areas that would improve the care of MRC patients,” said Dr. Sam Grissom, medical director at MRC. “Specialists from areas such as cardiology, urology, neurology and gastroenterology can help us manage conditions while patients are undergoing rehabilitation, as well as be part of their preventive care.”
Harkey remembers a time when such interaction was common, and he’s eager to rekindle that relationship.
“I have two faculty members coming on board that I hope will play the kind of role I played when I was a neurosurgeon at MRC back in the 1990s,” Harkey said. “I want them to have a very hands-on, boots-on-the-ground relationship with MRC. Likewise, I’m hoping MRC staff will be coming over here and seeing patients in the acute care setting.”
Such collaboration also interests Dr. Rebecca Sugg, director of UMMC’s Stroke Center. “What I’m most excited about is being able to provide integrated and early rehabilitation services to our patients and facilitating a transition of care that’s seamless and personalized to the patient,” she said. “I’m also excited about the crossover in therapists and treatment to enhance recovery.”
A care continuum between the hospitals will also give UMMC scientists ongoing access to MRC patients, a definite plus for neuroscience research projects.
“We need the patients to give us ideas on what needs to be studied and opportunities to apply some of our innovative treatments and therapies,” Harkey said.
While UMMC and MRC researcher operations will remain independent, Stokic sees plenty of incentives to collaborate on projects.
“By sharing resources we avoid redundancies and conduct more cost-effective research,” Stokic said. “And there’s also a community benefit because adoption of innovation to clinical practice is faster where collaborative research takes place.
“Basic scientists are expected to show how their research will progress from the laboratory bench to the patient’s bedside. And we have the resources and expertise to carry out the clinical side of that research.”
Stokic calls the affiliation “a win-win situation” for both research programs, in terms of types of projects that can be pursued and the ability to attract grant funding.
“Having researchers with different backgrounds and expertise working together means we can address more complex topics,” Stokic said. “UMMC has expertise in acute care for stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, neuro-imaging, neuropathology and physiological modeling, while we have expertise in evaluation of motor and cognitive functions after these neurological injuries.”
Both Stokic and Lehman say the affiliation also will help attract research talent, and they point to Ray Grill, Ph.D. as Exhibit A. The up and coming neuroscientist will join UMMC’s research staff in January, a coup made possible in part by the impending alliance with MRC.
“It was absolutely crucial from my perspective,” Grill said. “This gives me access not just to patients but also to the rehabilitation that is going to have to be a big part of any therapeutics.”
Most recently a researcher at The University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Houston, Grill is passionate about helping people with spinal cord injuries.
“My cousin was a medic in the Vietnam War, and at a young age I got to see some patients at the VA who were living with chronic spinal cord injury,” Grill said. “I saw the unfairness of it; how it robs you of so much. My goal was to find a lab to do spinal cord injury research.”
Grill is currently focused on studying the impact of acute and chronic inflammation after spinal cord injury with the hopes of identifying interventions that improve recovery.
“Despite over 100 years of research, we don’t have a single FDA-approved therapy that will preserve or restore function,” Grill said. “And I decided to focus my lab’s efforts on determining why.”
It’s an ambitious goal, but Lehman said there’s no reason why it can’t happen in Mississippi.
“Whatever the possibilities of treatment are, they can be explored here as well as any other place in the world,” he said.
But like the affiliation’s success, it will depend on teamwork.
“Curing disease and improving patient outcomes depends on all of us working together,” Lehman said. “We’re all critical components and partners in that process.”
Susan Christensen is director of public relations at Methodist Rehabilitation Center. This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of MRC’s magazine, Ways and Means.