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Reimagining and Pioneering Research at Atlantic Health System

A Streamlined, More Efficient Research Enterprise Reinvents Itself Under Atlantic Center for Research

When Eric Whitman, MD was training to become a physician, a mentor once said the hospital he was at didn’t provide patient care.

It made patient care better.

As jarring as the first statement was to Dr. Whitman and his classmates, that teacher’s point stuck with him and it helped define his career.

“We’re not content just providing care at Atlantic Health System, we want to improve it,” said Dr. Whitman, interim chief research officer for Atlantic Health System and medical director of Atlantic Health System Cancer Care, a board-certified general surgeon, and a certified physician investigator known internationally for his melanoma clinical and research work. He is certified by the American Board of Surgery. “As an organization, we have decided that we’re going to be on the cutting-edge of research.”That drives much of what’s being done by Dr. Whitman and his colleagues.

In the last decade, the research enterprise at Atlantic Health System has grown from about 200 trials in 2010 to more than 500 in 2020.  Many renowned researchers now choose Atlantic Health System over health systems that may claim better name recognition and patients often choose quality treatment here rather than traveling to New York or Boston. 

Jan Schwarz-Miller, MD, chief medical and academic officer, Atlantic Health System, first began overseeing research at Atlantic Health System in 2013. The growth, she said, has been monumental, especially in the last year or two – Atlantic Health System has both clinical and research excellence, which helps attract world-class researchers.

By reexamining everything being done by researchers at Atlantic Health System, more high-impact studies are carefully chosen to benefit the local catchment area.

“We can have 100 studies, great studies but if they don't help our patients, they are of no value,” she said adding that COVID-19 helped propel changes that were already underway, allowing research here to make a “quantum leap.”

Pharmaceutical companies came here to see if their medications worked. Researchers were excited to search for answers. Dr. Whitman, temporarily halted from doing surgeries, helped lead the effort, and Sheilah O’Halloran, SVP, Legal Affairs, personally worked to approve new trials to expedite them.

“We had the structure, a process, the passion and, most importantly, the patients,” she said. “Everybody understood the importance at the time. We upped our game tremendously. COVID was difficult and tragic but it got us to demonstrate what we can do and what we should do moving forward.”

Dr. Schwarz-Miller and Dr. Whitman credit Mahalaxmi Aburi, PhD, director of the Atlantic Center for Research, with the growth and building unparalleled excitement.

“COVID pushed us to be creative, innovative and agile,” said Aburi, with a background in building research enterprises for academic medical centers. “The question was, how do we bring research to the next level.”

The goal of research at Atlantic Health System is to translate leading-edge science into high quality care so each patient receives the right care at the right time in the right way.

Amy Perry, CEO, Hospital Division, and SVP, Integrated Care Delivery

Centralization of Research Enterprise Under Atlantic Center for Research

While not an organization known around the world for its research, the groundwork has been laid for heading in that direction.

“Atlantic Health System has a long and enduring commitment to research to improve clinical care,” said Amy Perry, CEO, Hospital Division, and SVP, Integrated Care Delivery. We continue to make investments in our research enterprise to position ourselves to be at the forefront of clinical research and clinical care, bringing exciting, innovative treatments to the patients and communities we serve. The centralization of the Atlantic Health System research enterprise under Atlantic Center for Research is a transformative change that leverages those investments and enables us to take research to new heights, increasing our participation in high impact research, diversifying our funding portfolio, leveraging our proximity to biotech, improving efficiency and maximizing productivity”

With the COVID-19 pandemic causing researchers, doctors and nurses stumbling in the dark, grasping for answers, it sped up processes and made the research enterprise at Atlantic Health System be tremendously well-organized and effective. The recent changes have streamlined all processes and reduced turnaround time significantly for contracts. Everything from start to finish is now fully automated and a restructuring has led to all research at Atlantic Health System being overseen by Atlantic Center for Research, allowing Atlantic Health System medical centers and service lines to work together in an efficient way rather than independently.

“It has improved the reputation of Atlantic Health System noticeably,” said John Halperin, MD, who chaired Overlook Medical Center’s department of neurosciences for 15 years and is currently medical director for the Atlantic Center for Research. The changes are exciting to Atlantic Health System team members and offers patients access to “high risk, high reward” options – opportunities that traditionally didn’t exist here. “It makes us one of the strongest organizations in the region.”

Atlantic Health System emerged as a highly agile organization with a pioneering culture that can pivot easily and continuously adapt itself to stay remain relevant.

“It allows Atlantic Health to not only be a place for delivery of care but a place of innovations that benefit patients,” said Lewis Rubinson, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Morristown Medical Center, pointing out that the volume of patients and the infrastructure put in place optimizes performing clinical research here, and attracts nationally- and world-renowned researchers.

Patients, he said, don’t have to wait for New York or other area academic medical centers to answer clinical research questions because “we have the capability to do it.”

Historically, research at Atlantic Health System focused around Morristown and Overlook medical centers. But Newton, Hackettstown and Chilton medical centers also played a key role in research at Atlantic Health System during the pandemic – a development Rubinson said greatly benefits patients in those communities who don’t have to travel far from their homes. Some studies, he added, are initiated in those hospitals as well, benefitting the research enterprise.

Damanpreet Ubhi, MD, an infectious disease physician and chair of the Department of Medicine at Hackettstown Medical Center is thrilled.

For the last year, she and other researchers at Atlantic Health System met two-to-three times per week to discuss their progress. The process, she said, has made patients increasingly content to be treated at any Atlantic Health System site since treatments are available throughout.

“It has made a difference,” she said. “I’m very excited.”

Building the Way Forward

The pandemic propelled researchers at Atlantic Health System to be innovative – virtual visits allowed trials for life-threatening conditions to continue and ones related to COVID-19 to begin without missing many screenings or follow-ups, said Linda Gillam, MD, MPH, Dorothy and Lloyd Huck Chair of Cardiovascular Medicine at Morristown Medical Center and medical director of the cardiovascular service line, Atlantic Health System.

Specific to cardiology, Dr. Gillam said, Dr. Aburi has been very supportive of our researchers,  some of the most widely published in the world, who are studying everything from the best ways to prevent heart disease to the newest technologies for heart treatment.

“Research is critical to everything we do,” she said. “Research allows us to bring new treatments to patients and increases awareness outside Atlantic Health System.”

Even if there’s not a trial well-suited for someone, she said, patients are carefully evaluated in a way that gives the best possible plan for how to care for them – often leading them to stay at Atlantic Health System for cardiac and other medical care.

Amy Perry said the pandemic accelerated growth for research at Atlantic Health System and positioned it to come out stronger and more resilient than before. The research enterprise led a multidisciplinary 23 COVID-19-specific clinical trials with more than 300 patients throughout Atlantic Health System.

“Our research enterprise was not only able to survive but thrive during COVID-19, as we seamlessly redirected research efforts towards identifying, treating and curing this dangerous virus,” she said.

“The goal of research at Atlantic Health System is to translate leading-edge science into high quality care so that each patient receives the right care at the right time in the right way.”