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Hospital broadens cancer-care capacity

Surgeon Dr. Peter Dahlberg champions the effort to enhance River Falls Area Hospital's ability to provide cancer care close to home. Submitted photo

Many may not know it, but the River Falls Area Hospital sees and treats somewhere between 100-200 cancer patients. As recently as a year ago, all would have had to drive to the Twin Cities for treatment.

New RFAH President David Miller and cancer-center champion Dr. Peter Dahlberg agree that the hospital's goal is to keep growing its capacity to care for people the disease afflicts.

Dahlberg, a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon, came to RFAH about a year and a half ago from the University of Minnesota. There he had a research lab focused on lung cancer.

"One of my goals was to develop cancer care," he said about his arrival in River Falls. "Our clinical services are up and running."

He and Miller agree that cancer treatment is typically categorized into three main parts: Surgery, medicine and radiation.

Dahlberg's skills and experience address the surgical aspects. About nine months ago, the hospital equipped itself to deliver "infusion therapy," the medicine commonly known as chemotherapy.

The hospital partners with the seven-location Minnesota Oncology Hematology, P.A. (MOHPA) to provide the third aspect of cancer treatment: Radiation.

MOHPA specializes in oncology and blood disorders, also providing patients with information about the most recent clinical trials, sometimes known as non-traditional or even experimental cancer treatment.

The hospital's slow-but-sure road to establishing quality cancer care demands fulfillment of many complicated requirements.

Miller said any cancer-care program must have a leader and medical oncologist.

"If you don't have a champion physician (like Dahlberg), you don't have a program," Miller said.

Along with other partnerships and collaboration, help from the hospital's owner, Allina Hospitals & Clinics, has also been an integral part of starting cancer treatment in River Falls -- for example, its program for supporting community hospital oncology.

Dahlberg said the addition of Dr. Vladimir Hugec, a medical oncologist, brings the hospital more capacity it needs. Hugec, a specialist, practices in River Falls on Fridays and often consults with Dahlberg.

Miller and Dahlberg said the next objective will be accreditation as a cancer-care center by the American College of Surgeons' Commission on Cancer.

The two agree that there's a lot more to "starting a cancer-care center" than getting a qualified doctor and the right machines.

"One of the goals we want to focus on at the hospital is to have cancer care...and we haven't gone in lightly," Miller said. "It's a two-year process toward accreditation."

He emphasizes that the point isn't just to provide cancer care but to do it well and offer top-quality from diagnosis to treatment and beyond.

Besides himself as oncologist and Hugec as medical oncologist, Dahlberg said a whole team of doctors collaborate about each patient's treatment since each person is unique. For example, it might be him, Hugec, their associates, the person's primary-care doctor and others who examine the patient's condition and determine the most effective treatment plan.

Another part of the administration piece of cancer care is setting things up so that they all work together, seamlessly and harmoniously, from special-care counselors to community outreach.

Miller said, "We plan to be one of the best (cancer-care facilities)."

Dahlberg said RFAH's vision is to offer patients on-campus, state-of-the-art, integrated cancer care that enables them to stay close to home rather than traveling to the Twin Cities.

The men agree that cancer-care accreditation would pave the way to enhancing service even more. Dahlberg said the hospital could conceivably add capabilities for clinical trials within as little as a year's time. It may eventually be able to offer on-site radiation treatment, too.

In the near future, the hospital will concentrate mostly on administration and accreditation.

Dahlberg says every patient should have their team of doctors looking at clinical trials to see what has worked in similar situations. Though the hospital's team does that now, with accreditation, it might be able to do in-house clinical trials.

He says the cancer-care center may also hold opportunities to partner with industry, too.

Dahlberg ran into the director of UW-River Falls' Tissue and Cellular Innovation Center, Dr. Timothy Lyden, and the two discussed many interesting possibilities.

Miller said RFAH is excited to offer quality cancer care close to home, especially knowing that people can easily feel overwhelmed when stricken with the disease. They need help sorting out the particulars of their condition and their treatment options.

"Cancer care is a complicated medicine," said Miller. "This is an area that's exploding with science."

Dahlberg agrees it's a complicated package the hospital is putting together but a "very, very important one."

Miller said about the care, "Staying on top of it is hard, but it's a big deal. It's a really big deal."