Dr. Benjamin Widener will vacate his position at Big Horn Mountain Medicine for two years to pursue additional training for expertise needed in the Sheridan area.
Widener will complete a two-year fellowship in Nebraska that focuses on rheumatology. Rheumatology is a subspecialty area of internal medicine that focuses on autoimmune conditions, most notably arthritis and connective tissue disorders that are commonly referred to as rheumatic diseases, according to a press release from Sheridan Memorial Hospital. Patients with the disease may suffer symptoms such as fatigue, joint or muscle pain, unexplained rash, fever, weakness or weight loss.
Medical professionals commonly attend a four-year undergraduate program, followed by three to five years of residency time and a two-to-three-year fellowship to complete schooling and training. After residency, Widener wanted to jump into practice before enrolling in a fellowship.
It was then he found his passion and drive in helping those with ailments classified under rheumatology.
“I like what I do; I could do this forever probably, but I really just get more engaged in the cases that are rheumatologic,” Widener said. “They’re tough and puzzles to figure out in a good way.”
Widener estimated about 300 people in Sheridan County suffer from a rheumatological medical issue and must see specialists in Billings or Casper. Even then, though, specialists in those places are booked out around six months.
The American College of Rheumatology 2015 workforce study recorded 4,997 full-time rheumatologists practicing in the United States, which translates to an average of 48,997.5 adults per adult rheumatologist in the nation. The shortage affects rural locations like Sheridan greatly.
“I can usually see them and get them started on treatment, but to maximize their treatment they should really see a specialist,” Widener said. “Lot of them are autoimmune inflammatory conditions, diseases that affect the joints and connective tissues fall under rheumatology and are often painful because of that.”
The fellowship will last two years for Widener, who will leave his family, friends and patients behind in Sheridan. His wife will join him in Nebraska, and other medical professionals at Big Horn Mountain Medicine will absorb the patients Widener will be unable to see for the next two years.
The fellowship will work similarly to residencies in that Widener will balance education and hands-on learning.
“Most of it’s spent seeing patients combined with a lot of conferences and lectures to improve education on it,” Widener said. “The goal is to see as many patients as possible in conjunction with experts.”
Although Widener leaves around 1,000 patients to adjust to a new doctor, he and his colleagues believe the benefit of his obtained skills will outweigh the short-term consequences of his absence.
“Having a rheumatologist in our community will be a big deal from both a patient and physician standpoint,” said Ian Hunter, MD, internist and Chief of Medical Staff at Sheridan Memorial Hospital. “In the future, patients who require rheumatology services will be able to receive the care they need right here in Sheridan, and the primary care clinicians will have an expanded ability to take care of these patients simply by having the consultative expertise more readily available.”
Widener said he looks forward to returning in two years with new skills to add to the medical care offered in Sheridan.