People living with arthritis rely on the special expertise of a rheumatologist. However, having access to one can be difficult due to a severe shortage across the country. The Arthritis Foundation has committed to help close the gap on the rheumatologist shortage by funding grants to universities in underserved areas, providing $150,000 to support new fellowship programs. Five schools were funded for three adult and two pediatric rheumatology fellowships, running from July 2020 to July 2021.
Two of the fellows have been named for adult fellowship programs funded by the Arthritis Foundation: Dr. Kurt Blake at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and Dr. Brett Dietz at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).
Meet Dr. Kurt Blake
Dr. Kurt Blake has been named as the fellow for the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Doctors at UAB help their community in several ways, including pilot programs in telecare, disease specific clinics and a clinic for uninsured patients.
Dr. Blake completed medical school at the University of the West Indies – Mona Campus in Jamaica, where he was born and raised. He worked with an orthopedic team in a rural hospital in Jamaica. He later moved on to St. George’s University and joined the faculty there. However, he found himself moving more toward academics and research and further from patient care, which he enjoyed the most. Dr. Blake then decided to return to more direct patient care and applied for and accepted a position in the U.S. at Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center in Athens, Georgia.
He applied for a fellowship and spent a month at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, focusing on inpatient consultation services. This experience helped finalize his decision to pursue a specialty in rheumatology.
“There aren’t enough rheumatologists to see the number of patients who need this care. Patients can’t get access to care they need when they need it and are sometimes waiting to be seen six to seven months,” says Dr. Blake. “Once I learned this, I knew I could make a difference in people’s lives.”
Dr. Blake is in his first year of the fellowship program at UAB and is learning what opportunities are available in the field of rheumatology. Being an Arthritis Foundation-funded fellow fits well with his personal goals of becoming a rheumatologist.
“The mission of the Arthritis Foundation is to change the trajectory of a patient’s disease process early, hopefully to prevent progression of arthritis. Connecting patients and advocating for their needs is so important,” says Blake. “My personal mission intersects with the Foundation’s mission.”
Blake recalls a patient with arthritis he worked with in Jamaica early in his medical career who was on steroids for a long period of time. The effects this had on her disease course were significant, costing her life in the end due to complications in surgery. It was at this time he realized that being able to help people early on in their diagnosis and provide proper education are key.
“Spending an extra 15 to 20 minutes with a patient can make a big difference. Really spending the time to explain the disease, treatments chosen and understanding their medications is the hallmark to patient-centered care,” says Blake. “If I can properly educate my patients, it’s half the battle. It helps patients feel more empowered.”
Dr. Blake hopes to focus on community-based care, perhaps specializing in lupus, its significant effects on various ethnic backgrounds and ensuring equal access to treatments, education and care for this underserved population.
Meet Dr. Brett Dietz
Dr. Dietz has been named as the fellow for the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). The UCSF rheumatology program is recognized globally and serves more than 6,000 patients with arthritis conditions each year.
Dr. Dietz completed his undergraduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles, and his master’s degree at Stanford University. He completed his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania prior to his residency training at UCSF in internal medicine, with an area of distinction in clinical research.
The human connection is what draws Dr. Dietz to the field of rheumatology. He finds it is the most rewarding aspect of practicing medicine.
“I was attracted to rheumatology for the potential to treat people at all stages of life and to cultivate relationships over years,” says Dr. Dietz. “I wanted to be in a field where I felt I could make a meaningful contribution to patients’ quality of life, and the rapid pace of scientific advancement in rheumatology promises to expand our options for helping those suffering from arthritis and rheumatic diseases.”
Dr. Dietz has a research interest in the quality of care and the patient experience of illness. He has three specific goals he hopes to achieve during this fellowship: improve his clinical skills in caring for patients with complex rheumatic disease; develop his skills at musculoskeletal ultrasound to have another diagnostic modality available to use in the care of patients; and build skills as a teacher to become involved in the educational component of the fellowship.
“Part of the Arthritis Foundation mission is to provide access to high-quality care, and the fellowship allows me to care for a diverse and historically underserved group of patients at two hospitals,” says Dietz. “Just as the Arthritis Foundation raises awareness and patient education about arthritis, I believe an important part of a rheumatologist’s job is to educate individuals with arthritis about their disease and how to improve quality of life.”