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The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Dr. James C. Stevens was selected president-elect of the American Academy of Neurology, a national professional group.

Sunday, June 18, 2017 1:00 am

Local neurologist to lead national group

First from state to be selected to position

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette


Dr. James Stevens

Title: President-elect of the American Academy of Neurology; neurologist in private practice at Fort Wayne Neuro­logical Center

Age: 60

Hometown: Columbus, Ind.

Education: Indiana University undergraduate and medical degrees

Family: Married to Laurel; father of grown children Kait and Ben; grandfather of Vida

Hobbies: Playing tennis

James C. Stevens has always been drawn to challenging cases.

From the time Stevens was a high school student working as an emergency room orderly, the local neurologist felt drawn to patients with injuries that affected the brain, spine or nervous system.

The son of a dentist father and schoolteacher mother, Stevens believed the field could keep him interested for a lifetime because there was so much doctors didn't know in the 1980s, when he was attending medical school at Indiana University.

And he was right.

Almost 30 years after he began practice, Dr. Stevens remains fascinated by neurology. That curiosity and dedication helped propel him to being named president-elect of the American Academy of Neurology, a professional group with about 32,000 members. Stevens will serve a two-year term before taking the presidency for the following two years.

He will be the organization's 36th president, its first from Indiana.

Catherine Rydell, the academy's executive director and CEO, said Steven's “outstanding contributions” to the organization have included leading its strategic planning process and contributing to more than 80 neurological clinical trials as participant, co-author or principal investigator.

“His dedication and wealth of leadership experience will continue to advance our growing organization,” she said in a statement.

Neurology was known in the 1950s and '60s as “the ­diagnose-and-adios specialty,” Stevens said. At that time, doctors couldn't do much to help patients suffering from migraines, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.

Advances in medical research now allow neurologists to prevent some conditions and treat others. In some cases, they can even restore function lost because of brain injury, spinal cord damage or other neurological condition, he said.

The academy advocates for research into how the brain and nervous system work. Securing funding for that work has long been a priority.

Two newer priorities are just as significant, Stevens said.

The medical community anticipates a significant shortfall of neurologists in the coming decade. Estimates say only about three of the specialists will be available for every four who are needed.

The other priority is addressing the skyrocketing cost of care.

The academy is dealing with the shortage of specialists by encouraging neurologists to see patients using video technology. The practice – typically called telemedicine – allows stroke patients living in rural areas to receive a diagnosis and a dose of a clot-busting drug quickly enough for it to be effective, for example. 

Another approach is training nurse practitioners and physician assistants to care for stable neurological patients who need monitored, freeing up specialists to treat tougher cases.

“That's a real issue: access,” Stevens said. “And we want to solve that problem so people can have access to our expertise if they need that.”

Dealing with costs can be trickier, especially considering that no one knows the future of the Affordable Care Act or what might be signed into law to replace it.

The academy is launching a registry to collect data on how member neurologists treated various conditions and how patients responded.

By using the collected information, the nonprofit plans to educate members, insurance companies and government officials on what treatments are most cost-effective.

As a physician in private practice, Stevens approaches the position of president-elect slightly differently from many of his predecessors. The last person to hold the office – academy president Dr. Ralph Sacco – is the neurology department chairman at the University of Miami's medical school.

Because Stevens meets daily with patients, he's more in tune with physician burnout. Doctors are being asked to spend as much time at a computer keyboard – documenting data for insurance companies and the government – as they do facing a patient, he said.

But doctors don't go to medical school to sit at a computer, he added. They want to make eye contact with patients and be able to perform hands-on physical exams.

Stevens handles the issue by taking a few handwritten notes, as needed, but keeping computers out of his examining rooms. He pays staff to update records from his notes.

He also encourages staff to socialize with co-workers and with family and friends. By keeping office hours to a reasonable length, doctors and staff can have time to unwind afterward, Stevens said.

The neurology academy supports a balance of providing high-quality patient care with members' career satisfaction.

Stevens, a member for 25 years, proves achieving that balance is possible.

“I'm just as passionate this morning when I wake up to see patients,” he said, “as I was 30 years ago.”