Nelson Sabates (M.D. ’86)

Spotlight Award

Sabates’ efforts have brought world-class scholars and researchers to Kansas City and UMKC, pioneering new treatments and advancing basic and clinical studies to improve patient care.  Sabates, who has taught residents and medical students for more than 20 years, is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at UMKC, Founder and Director of the Vision Research Center at UMKC, President and CEO of Sabates Eye Centers and President of the Vision Research Foundation of Kansas City.  The Vision Research Foundation’s focus on bench-to-bedside translational research – the only regional eye center to combine this research with clinical trials – seeks to improve treatment for eye diseases that affect millions.  Sabates also has an international, national, regional and local presence as a leader, board member, speaker and author.

What was special or memorable about your education at UMKC?

What is really incredible about the six-year medical program is the exposure to patients almost right from the beginning. We get so used to being around patients and treating patients and treating a vast array of problems that by time we get out of medical school we are so much better prepared. My mentor there, Dr. Richardson Novak, really helped me become the doctor that I am. He was the founding dean of the medical school and was my docent on Blue 5 my entire four years.

I have three role models in my life – my mother and father and Dr. Novak. They are the people who molded me into who I am.

What does it take to attract world-class researchers to the Department of Ophthalmology? Why and how have you been so successful?

The field has seven sub-specialties, and you really need to offer all seven to attract top-notch faculty. What helps us is the unique model we have in the department, which is both full time academic and full time private practice, the best of both worlds. And we have 10 faculty members who were graduates of our program and decided to come back, and that says a lot – that they felt so strongly about who we are and what we’re doing that they wanted to continue to be a part of it.

What are the most significant changes you have seen in the practice of ophthalmology over the course of your career? What are the major challenges that lie ahead?

There are two parts. One is the clinical side of ophthalmology and one is the business/practical evolution of ophthalmology and health care. On the clinical side, over the past 20 years we’ve seen a dramatic improvement in our ability to take care of people. It’s so gratifying to be able to take care of people with surgery and medications that we didn’t have 20 years ago, saving people’s vision that we couldn’t save 20 years ago. Then, the only treatment for wet macular degeneration was lasers; now we have medications that we can inject into the eye and not only stop the progression of the disease, but actually improve the patient’s vision. We were involved in the clinical research on that from the very beginning. Cataract surgery has advanced so far – patients now can see so much better within a day or two, with no stitches and topical anesthesia.  And there’s a lot more on the horizon – we’re looking at the ability to use gene therapy with a viral vector to treat patients.

On the business side, we are undergoing dramatic downward pressure in terms of what physicians are being reimbursed. In some cases the reimbursement for procedures is 50 percent less than when I started. Just like every business there are significant challenges within health care to be able to accomplish more with less. It’s the evolution of our health care system and we have to change with it, but it’s very challenging. Because health care has to change – it’s not sustainable, what’s happening.

Puppy love
Uncrossing the wires

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