On 13 April 2022, Prof. Ohwofiemu Ejiogu Nwariaku, was announced as the new chairman of the Department of Surgery at the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine, University of Utah Health, United States. In this position, which takes effect from 1 July, he will oversee all surgical clinical care, research, training programmes, as well as the entire faculty and staff at the University of Utah Health.
To understand the significance of this appointment, one must consider that the University of Utah Health is the only university healthcare system in the state of Utah, and the department that Nwariaku has been appointed to head provides surgery care to adults and children in one of the largest services areas in the country. His service area includes Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming, which comprises 10 percent of the landmass of the continental United States.
Moreover, the surgery programme at the University of Utah Health, which Nwariaku will be leading, is a nationally ranked academic surgical programme that, in addition to providing expert clinical care, engages in scientific inquiry across a broad range of areas. These include ground-breaking laboratory research, advanced surgical technology, as well as healthcare system innovations.
The question that immediately springs to mind is, why should a Nigerian-born and Unibadan-trained physician be the one to be entrusted with such a prominent and paramount role in the United States healthcare system? The answer is obvious. Nwariaku is a highly-skilled surgeon and consummate scientist, who is at the forefront of breakthroughs in treating diseases of the endocrine system. Endocrine system diseases are diseases affecting the pancreas, adrenal, parathyroid, and thyroid glands. His roles include evaluating and treating patients with health concerns, ranging from Cushing’s syndrome to complex thyroid cancers.
Nwariaku is indeed among the most experienced endocrine surgeons, with specialised expertise in robotic and minimally invasive surgery. He is recognised worldwide for his work in advancing innovative surgical approaches to successfully remove benign and malignant adrenal tumours.
He is presently a professor of Surgery and executive vice-chairman in the Department of Surgery, at the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Centre (UTSW). He leads a multidisciplinary team of researchers at UT Southwestern who recently discovered a specific protein that plays a role in medullary thyroid cancer, a rare and often fatal disease. The team is presently working to identify therapies to target the protein and inhibit the growth of medullary thyroid cancer cells.
Nwariaku is also associate dean of UTSW’s Office for Global Health, which was established in 2010 to direct and develop training and research initiatives with partners around the world. He is equally known for building clinical programmes at UTSW, across surgical specialties, hospital systems, and affiliates, including the Texas Heart Resources Dallas.
As an educator, Nwariaku has established many academic programmes locally, nationally, and internationally, including a global health curriculum for medical students and an Endocrine Surgery Fellowship. The accomplished scientist has broad research interests and achievements, spanning from inflammation to cancer to the use of technology to improving surgical outcomes. He has published approximately 100 peer-reviewed journal articles, 15 book chapters, and three books. He has lectured on endocrine surgery and global health topics around the world.
Genius of endocrine surgery
To better appreciate the ground-breaking efforts of Nwariaku at revolutionising treatment of endocrine diseases, it is important to note that endocrine surgery is one of the most complex forms of surgery. The organs that make up the endocrine system are well-protected within the body, tucked behind other vital organs and surrounded by delicate blood vessels. This naturally makes them hard to reach, and this, paired with changes to hormone functions, makes recovery difficult for patients.
Nwariaku has, however, led his team to develop novel and advanced techniques with which they treat patients with endocrine conditions effectively and safely, while also drastically reducing recovery times.
According to him, “With laparoscopic adrenalectomies, we typically need to make only three or four very small incisions to remove adrenal tumours. It’s safe for patients to go home from the hospital a day or two after the surgery.
“Also, this type of minimally invasive endocrine surgery offers the benefit of shorter recovery times – days versus weeks. And within a few months of procedures, scars are small and barely noticeable, compared to the large abdominal scars patients had in the past,”
Flurry of accolades
With such outstanding medical expertise, commitment to patient care and a track-record of excellent leadership at different levels, it is no surprise that Nwariaku’s latest appointment has continued to attract massive attention and accolades.
Michael L. Good, CEO of University of Utah Health, who is also the executive dean of the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine and senior vice president of Health Sciences, said of the appointment: “Dr Nwariaku excels as a leader, surgeon, educator, and scientist. He is nationally and globally recognised for his work, and we are pleased to welcome him to University of Utah Health. All his leadership experience will help bring an already exceptional department and faculty to even greater heights of national recognition as we achieve excellence in our missions here at the University of Utah.”
Similarly, Dan Lundergan, CEO of University of Utah Health Hospitals & Clinics, enthused: “We are thrilled to welcome Dr Nwariaku to University of Utah Health. Faculty are the lifeblood of medical school and the department of surgery, and Dr. Nwariaku focuses intensely on faculty success and development initiatives. This approach fits so well with who we are in the U of U health system, where our people make us all we are.”
Career path and recognitions
Born 57 years ago, Nwariaku studied Medicine at the University of Ibadan, receiving his medical degree in 1987. He had his internship at Baptist Medical Centre, Ogbomosho, Osun State (1987-1988). He did his residency at Eku Baptist Hospital in Eku, Delta State (1988-1991) where he distinguished himself and impressed the visiting American surgeons. He was consequently accepted for a residency programme in Surgery at UTSW, Dallas, Texas, USA (1991-1998). He has been on the faculty at UTSW since then and risen through the ranks to his present leadership positions.
Nwariaku, who also recently completed the Physician Executive Masters in Business Administration (PEMBA) programme of the University of Tennessee, is the current vice-president, American Association of Endocrine Surgeons. He is a member of the Harold C. Simmons Cancer Centre and a subcommittee reviewer for the National Cancer Institute. He also serves on the advisory board of the African Journal of Medicine & Medical Sciences and as an external review panelist for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was also president of the Association of Nigerian Physicians in the Americas (ANPA), from 2010 to 2012; and also a former president, Association for Academic Surgery, United States.
He has been variously recognised for his exceptional exploits. These include the Educational Scholarship Award, by the Society of Critical Care (1995); the Medicine Academic Excellence Award, by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre (1996); the Resident Teaching Award by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre (1998); the Malcolm O. Perry Professorship in Surgery (2007); as well as the Australia and New Zealand Chapter of the American College of Surgeons Traveling Fellowship Award, by the American College of Surgeons (2008).