Educating a New Generation: The Milton S. Hershey Medical Center’s Innovative Neurosurgery Residency Training Program

By Katy Mena-Berkley
Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The freshly expanded Neurosurgery Residency Training Program at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center offers world-class training, with the option for future neurosurgeons to complete their education at an accelerated pace.

Participants in this ACGME-accredited program benefit from the comprehensive academic and clinical expertise of fellowship-trained specialists and help fill a need for care in central Pennsylvania and around the nation, according to Program Director James McInerney, MD, FAANS, FACS.

“The supply of neurosurgeons is tight, and there are fewer of them in rural and suburban areas,” Dr. McInerney says. “Having a training program in this type of environment definitely helps. We have hired a number of our residents, and several have gone to underserved areas of the Midwest and other places where there’s a real need.”

“We provide some of the highest-quality neurosurgical training in a nontraditional, rural environment. Thinking outside the box has allowed us to do a very good job in the most important aspects of training neurosurgery residents.”
— James McInerney, MD, FAANS, FACS, program director, Neurosurgery Residency Training Program at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

Expanded Program, Expanded Opportunities

Hershey Medical Center recently began accepting a third resident each year into the seven-year Neurosurgery Residency Training Program. That is exceptional, as most programs lack the caseloads to justify more than one or two residents. With the Department of Neurosurgery handling approximately 4,500 cases per year, Hershey Medical Center was able to add a third resident yet still ensure that all three perform a high volume of diverse procedures from which to gain the experience they need to address the full range of conditions they will encounter.

“Most programs aren’t able to provide cases in every area of neurosurgery,” Dr. McInerney explains. “We have more than 20 clinical faculty members and really successful, busy, varied programs in all of the subspecialties. When our residents graduate, they always make all of their case minimums in each area of neurosurgery. That’s not true for most programs in the country, and it gives our residents a breadth of experience that is virtually unrivaled.”

Additionally, while a Hershey Medical Center neurosurgery resident goes on an international rotation annually, the expansion helps ensure that his or her colleagues stateside will continue to be able to provide the complete spectrum of neurosurgical care to patients as caseloads increase.

“Students in the 3+7 Neurosurgery Accelerated Pathway at Penn State have had nothing but positive things to say. They have been able to handle the added rigor of this curriculum without any trouble.”
— Mark Dias, MD, FAANS, FAAP, vice chair for education, Department of Neurosurgery at Penn State Health Neuroscience

Quickening the Journey to Service

Also setting medical education apart at Hershey Medical Center, Penn State College of Medicine students who are eager to complete their training more rapidly have the option of applying for the 3+7 Neurosurgery Accelerated Pathway at Penn State (NS-APPS). The program — one of only a handful in the nation — consists of three years of medical school and the seven-year residency. The first student in the NS-APPS began in fall 2017.

“It allows the student to finish school a year earlier and pay for only three years rather than four years of medical school,” says Mark Dias, MD, FAANS, FAAP, vice chair for education, Department of Neurosurgery at Penn State Health Neuroscience. “The student going through the accelerated three-year curriculum typically joins the neurosurgery residency program here at Penn State.”

Students who already have a strong commitment to neurosurgery and are aware of the demands of the field are ideal fits for the program, Dr. Dias explains. They benefit from mentors within the Department of Neurosurgery, who may help guide their career paths as well as their research goals.

The medical school curriculum can be tailored to expose these students to all the core elements of neurosurgery, Dr. Dias notes, and the program gives Dr. Dias and his team the opportunity to get to know each student for three years before making a final decision about whether a neurosurgery residency is the best fit. At any time during the accelerated program, the student or faculty may determine a different path is better suited to the student — including reverting to a four-year curriculum.

“We refer to it as an engagement, not a marriage,” Dr. McInerney says. “We allow for the possibility that students might change their minds.”

An Emphasis on Investigation

Students at Penn State College of Medicine and participants in the Neurosurgery Residency Training Program have expansive opportunities to take part in cutting-edge research with Penn State Neurosurgery, which has more than $8 million in active grants and is one of the top programs of its kind in the United States for funding from the National Institutes of Health. Eight full-time research faculty members lead research efforts, and scores of clinical studies — industry-backed and investigator-initiated — are in progress.

“We have been really fortunate to have a high number of both clinical and research faculty who have seen great success in the competition for funding,” Dr. McInerney says. “It allows us to make all kinds of opportunities available to both our residents and medical students to ensure they can pursue virtually any line of research.”

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