Highlights | Celebrating decades of MS care, research and training
- UW Medical Center has provided comprehensive multiple sclerosis (MS) services since 1977.
- Since 2012, all MS services have been under one roof in the UW Medicine Multiple Sclerosis Center at UW Medical Center – Northwest.
- A team approach is important for helping patients deal with the many ways MS impacts life.
- Along with clinical care, the Center also houses research and training opportunities.
- The Center is involved in community MS events and constantly works to offer new services.
In 1977, UW Medical Center became the first hospital on the West Coast to offer comprehensive services for patients with multiple sclerosis (MS). Then, 10 years ago, those services moved from clinics across UW Medical Center – Montlake to a shared home at UW Medical Center – Northwest, where MS patients can go to get all the care they need in one place.
Having the center here in the Pacific Northwest is especially important, as people in this region are at higher risk for MS.
The team at the MS Center includes five neurologists, a rehabilitation physician, three rehabilitation psychologists, two nurse practitioners, a social worker, infusion nurses, a vocational counselor, a neuro-ophthalmologist, MS-trained pharmacists and a robust nursing team. Annette Wundes, MD, a neurologist, is co-medical director for the MS Center. Both Wundes and Gloria von Geldern, MD, a neurologist who works at the MS Center, were named Top Doctors for 2022 by Seattle Magazine.
“Our strength in comprehensive care extends beyond the physical setup: we have strong collaborative relationships across our team and a shared perspective on the ways in which collaborative, multidisciplinary care can produce a greater outcome for our patients than any of us could accomplish individually,” says Kevin Alschuler, PhD, a psychologist who has been with the MS Center for 10 years.
Why centralized care matters
Though there are better treatment options for MS now than there were even 10 years ago, MS is still a chronic illness that can be difficult to manage. With symptoms ranging from fatigue and weakness to vision problems and dizziness to cognitive and mental health issues, MS affects many aspects of someone’s life. There is no cure for MS, and symptoms worsen over time in some people.
That’s why it’s so important for patients to be able to access all the different types of care they need in one location. This reduces the time and effort they spend seeking care, allowing them to focus more on managing their condition.
“One of the advantages of care in a multidisciplinary center is that we have the resources and expertise to extend beyond diagnosing and treating the underlying disease, to really work with patients on how they are managing their symptoms, how they are functioning out in the world, and how they can get the most out of the activities that they love doing,” Alschuler says.
For example, helping someone manage fatigue can involve many different specialists working together to improve a patient’s life, says Gloria Hou, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist and co-medical director of the MS Center.
“I can consider medication options, make sure conditions that cause fatigue — such as hypothyroidism, anemia, and sleep apnea — are identified and treated. I can also treat conditions that interfere with sleep, such as nerve pain, spasms and bladder problems. Our occupational therapists can help with energy conservation for tasks such as cooking or cleaning; our rehabilitation counselor can advise on work accommodations; our physical therapists can help improve balance and walking so that daily tasks are less effortful, and our cognitive therapists can help with structuring the workday and breaking down tasks to make them more manageable in the face of fatigue,” Hou explains.
Not only does each specialist provide care to address each area where a patient’s life is being impacted, but the team also comes together to troubleshoot complex cases and ensure a patient’s care is coordinated across all specialties.
The team’s expert care is recognized by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which awarded the MS Center its “Centers for Comprehensive MS Care” designation for the highest level of interdisciplinary care. The MS Center has also repeatedly received the first place UW Patient Satisfaction Excellence Award.
Beyond clinical care and looking to the future
While the MS Center is home to all the clinical care and medical specialties patients need, it is also a research and training center with a strong community presence.
The UW Multiple Sclerosis Rehabilitation and Wellness Research Center has housed $20 million worth of grant-funded studies over the past decade. The researchers not only study new medications and treatments and better ways to manage symptoms but also seek to understand better the diverse lived experiences of people who have MS.
One ongoing study, part of Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes), aims to support healthcare providers in rural and underserved areas and enable them to keep up with the latest advances in MS care. The study is a partnership with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society — one of many collaborations. Others include MS Center clinicians serving on national MS committees, hosting patient education events and participating in local events such as Walk MS, Alschuler says.
The MS Center team is also dedicated to training the next generation of MS providers in order to address the national shortage of MS specialists. The team works with medical students, residents and fellows across different disciplines and various research projects. They also host trainees from other schools through national programs that allow the trainees to access training they wouldn’t get elsewhere. Over the past 20 years, the MS fellowship program has trained 18 physicians in MS specialty care, many of whom are actively providing care to MS patients in multiple states across the U.S. and in Canada.
The team continues to expand clinical offerings for patients, too. This fall, they will be joined by rehabilitation physician Sarah Simmons, MD, PhD, who will help establish more options for patients who are interested in learning about how exercise can help them manage their MS.
“It is now well established that optimizing general health plays an important role in reducing disability and improving long-term function in MS,” says Hou. “As such, it is my goal to see more emphasis on and support for our patients’ lifestyle goals, such as optimizing nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress reduction, social support and mood. I hope and expect to see our clinical and research programs grow to support an emphasis on wellness for our patients.”