Our Most Valued Resource: Investing in the People of Kentucky Neuroscience Institute

The faculty and staff are the most valuable resource at the Kentucky Neuroscience Institute. Their expertise, knowledge, curiosity and thoughtfulness are evident every day as they improve patient outcomes and satisfaction, and change lives. Investing in the education, training and well-being of those who work here is vital in order to serve a broad and challenging patient population with complex neurologic disorders.

Research and mentoring opportunities

A researcher works in a neuroscience lab at the University of Kentucky.Significant research and mentoring opportunities are crucial to attract and retain the best and brightest minds in the neurosciences. The Kentucky Neuroscience Institute Clinical Research Organization, led by Dr. John Slevin, assists researchers in their efforts with financial management, regulatory support and personnel, and study coordinators. The university-wide Neuroscience Research Priority Area (NRPA) further supports neuroscience research through collaborative projects with a diverse group of investigators.With more than 320 faculty and trainees from nine colleges and 38 departments across the university, NRPA focuses on clinical and translational neuroscience research.

“We're an academic institution so it’s essential that we take time to teach our residents and we take time to do research,” said Dr. Craig van Horne, chair of the Department of Neurosurgery. “We can carve out that time and make sure they have goals around research and teaching.” Faculty are encouraged to build and develop their own programs. “We allow them to grow and expand, and we give them the support to do that,” said van Horne. 

Structured mentoring programs for neurologists and neurosurgeons are an essential part of faculty development. In the Department of Neurology, Dr. Gregory Jicha helped develop a program in which every faculty member has at least two more senior faculty mentors. They meet a minimum of twice a year to review goals, barriers and progress in achieving academic advancement. The Neurosurgery Department’s mentoring program involves all levels. Senior faculty members mentor junior faculty, while both senior and junior faculty serve as mentors for residents. Senior residents also mentor the newer residents.

The importance of diversity

The Kentucky Neuroscience Institute has also embraced diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to address inequities faced by colleagues and patients. Initiatives include a commitment to recruit from underrepresented groups and ensure everyone thrives in an environment free from racism and bigotry. 

A formal DEI curriculum was introduced to the neurology residency program by Dr. Ima Ebong, director of DEI for the Department of Neurology. The curriculum includes sessions, training and discussions to support a greater understanding of and commitment to underrepresented groups.

Another objective is to encourage young people from underrepresented groups to pursue careers in the neurosciences. That investment will help achieve a more diverse group of future physicians in the field, said van Horne. The UK BRAIN Summer Undergraduate Program fulfills that goal by targeting people from underserved populations who are interested in medicine or neurosurgery. As part of the program, participants get the chance to rotate with our physicians. Our faculty also work with students participating in the UK START Program, which aims to diversify the STEM community. The program provides research training for underrepresented students from middle school through graduate school.

Cultivating a pool of neurology providers

A group of Kentucky Neuroscience Institute providers gather in a classroom. Advanced Practice Providers (APPs) focus on primary care during their education and typically don’t get much training in neurology. As director of APPs for the Department of Neurology, Julie A. Gurwell Ph.D., PA-C, interviews and hires APPs for the Department of Neurology. Gurwell, a professor of neurology, created an onboarding program for new hires on topics that include training in neuroanatomy, the neurological exam and neurological diseases.

Through a series of fortunate events, the UK PA Academic Residency program developed the curriculum into a PA neurology residency. Moving forward, the residency program will train two neurology PA residents per year. Increasing the pool of experienced advanced practice providers will help address the shortage of neurologists across the country and expand access to neurological care. “It's a financially efficient way to train and develop a pipeline of advanced practice providers for neurology,” said Gurwell.

Supporting well-being

Dr. Zabeen Mahuwala chairs the Department of Neurology’s Wellness and Resilience Committee, a group she formed to help combat burnout and support well-being among faculty and residents. Mahuwala, an associate professor of neurology, says a 2021 Medscape National survey showed neurologists have one of the highest burnout rates among physicians. Female neurologists are at higher risk than men due to their traditional role of caregiver.

“As neurologists, our work demands time with our patients,” said Mahuwala. “We have long visits with patients, talking with them and examining them. And people who spend more time in direct patient care and outpatient clinics have a higher rate of burnout.”

The committee’s efforts have received positive feedback. Preliminary results from the committee’s research showed higher emotional exhaustion campus-wide when compared to published group averages for other medical professionals and educators. Interestingly, said Mahuwala, those who engaged in physical and leisure activities experienced significantly lower burnout and significantly higher personal accomplishment. 

Using these findings, the committee organized a number of events, including hikes, virtual Zumba, virtual movie nights and cooking classes. Other wellness offerings have included acupuncture and massage provided by the UK Integrative Medicine & Health program. The Department of Neurology reported lower burnout in 2022 compared to other departments, suggesting the committee activities may have had a positive impact.

Worthwhile efforts

Kentucky Neuroscience Institute providers walk through a hospital hallway together. Faculty, residents, APPs and staff are the backbone of the Kentucky Neuroscience Institute, and efforts to invest in them leave a positive impact now and into the future. The Kentucky Neuroscience Institute is a great place for faculty and staff who want to have a collegial atmosphere and cooperative environment to work in, said van Horne. “We have a lot of opportunities for subspecialties within neurosurgery,” he noted. “When you come here, you can really pursue what you want. When people are engaged, passionate, and doing what they want to do, that translates into better patient care.”