Dr. Bilimoria laughs with residents and faculty after Grand Rounds.
There is a new energy permeating through the Department of Surgery at the Indiana University School of Medicine with a new leader bringing an ambitious vision for how to advance an already strong department. Karl Y. Bilimoria, MD, MS, FACS, became the eighth chair of the Department of Surgery in September, succeeding Gary Dunnington, MD.
Bilimoria, the Jay L. Grosfeld Professor and Chair of the Department of Surgery, is not new to IU. He graduated from IU School of Medicine in 2003 and has become a nationally revered physician-scientist in health care quality, innovation and policy. He is the author of more than 450 publications, often in JAMA or the New England Journal of Medicine and has garnered nearly $40 million in research funding. His research has focused on how to improve surgical quality locally, regionally and nationally. He is also known for his innovative work in medical education research. A native Hoosier, Bilimoria is excited to return to bring his experience to further improve the quality of care delivered in the state of Indiana.
“The medical school is on a sharp upward trajectory and it’s what really got me excited about coming back here,” Bilimoria said. “And so is Indianapolis! It’s become much more interesting, lively and diverse over the last 20 years. The best thing about Indianapolis is how warm the people are.”
Surgery Department is solid
His first impressions of the IUSM Department of Surgery upon his return were extremely positive.
“I am very impressed by the faculty and the residents,” Bilimoria said. “The foundation of the department is solid and that’s exciting because you can take that solid platform and continue to grow and innovate upon it.”
He is taking the next few months to listen to faculty and learners to develop a comprehensive strategic plan for the department in a thoughtful, inclusive way.
“There are a lot of opportunities for growth across all three mission areas – clinical, education and research, as well as in enhancing diversity and well-being,” Bilimoria said. “Faculty and staff should expect an inclusive and transparent leadership style: as we make plans for our future, we will do it together,” Bilimoria emphasized.
He is focused on elevating the profile of the department through its portfolio of patient care and quality, research and innovation and excellence in medical education. “Simply implementing best practices and having committees isn’t enough,” said Bilimoria. “We need to be at the leading edge of all that we do – innovating new programs and approaches, testing these rigorously and disseminating the work with high-impact papers and presentations.”
Bilimoria has ambitious plans to implement a comprehensive surgical quality and process improvement structure across the department and IU Health that leads to a culture of continuous improvement and innovation. This work will be in step with IU Health, as he serves as vice president for Surgical Quality for the health system.
“Dr. Bilimoria’s leadership in training future surgeons and improving surgical quality will help advance the department to the next level,” said IU School of Medicine Dean Jay L. Hess, MD, PhD, MHSA. “His success as a physician-scientist is a proud testament to the training he received at IU School of Medicine, and I am eager for him to continue that tradition of excellence as our new chair for surgery.”
Before returning to IU, Bilimoria was a surgical oncologist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago and served as a professor of surgery, vice chair of quality in the Department of Surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and vice president for quality for the Northwestern Medicine Health system.
Bringing quality to surgical education
In 2011, he founded the Surgical Outcomes and Quality Improvement Center (SOQIC), a renowned collaborative health services, outcomes, health policy and quality and safety research enterprise of more than 60 faculty, fellows and staff, which recently relocated from Northwestern University to Indiana University. This new center at IUSM will be in partnership with the Regenstrief Institute and IU Health and seeks to be the leading surgical outcomes research center in the country.
Bilimoria is also founding director of the 56-hospital Illinois Surgical Quality Improvement Collaborative (ISQIC) which brought hospitals together to work on quality improvement across the state. The Illinois hospitals will now be merging with Indiana hospitals to become the Illiana Surgical Quality Improvement Collaborative.
With a passion to enhance the surgical education experience for learners and faculty alike, he also developed a platform for innovative surgical education trials as principal investigator of the 151-hospital FIRST Trial and co-PI of the 215-hospital SECOND Trial. This trials group also recently relocated to Indiana University and will be launching another large, national trial, the THIRD Trial, in 2023 that is focused on improving the culture of surgical departments.
“The FIRST Trial resulted in the 2017 ACGME policy change where some of the duty hour requirements were removed that impaired continuity of patient care,” Bilimoria said. “This work has been supported by the American College of Surgeons and the American Council for Graduate Medical Education for many years and has led to a huge body of work — dozens of publications and a large impact on the house of surgery.”
The current SECOND Trial randomizes 215 general surgery resident programs and seeks to reduce burnout and mistreatment in surgical departments. The intervention arm receives comparative data and tools and can compare themselves to other programs with respect to the general learning environment, burnout and mistreatment.
Each of these research areas align with Bilimoria’s passion to enhance surgical education and quality, according to Anthony L. Shanks, MD, MS, professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology for the IU School of Medicine, and a former roommate of Bilimoria during medical school.
Shanks describes Bilimoria as a smart, kind, transparent and likable person, who people want to be around.
“The research part clicked for him,” Shanks said. “His persistence to get things perfect led to his success. I am most excited about what he has accomplished in Illinois and what he can bring to Indiana. It is great for the health of Hoosiers.”
Bilimoria wants to take his quality experience to cultivate a culture of continuous evaluation and improvement for the IUSM Department of Surgery and across the IU Health system. He points to the African proverb, “Weighing a pig doesn’t make it fatter,” for inspiration.
“Measuring quality doesn’t just make it better,” he said. “We must act on it. We need to create a community of folks who can help lead the quality charge across the department, so they can make the changes in clinical care that they’d like to see.” Surgeons will be trained to do this type of work and will be supported by process improvement engineers and analysts to lead specific improvement in clinical quality.
Outside of work, Bilimoria enjoys spending time with his amazing wife, Sheila, and his three children. He says he tends to gravitate toward their interests and activities, particularly coaching their teams from time to time. Otherwise, he enjoys tinkering with his old car and biking when he is able.
“My kids are settled in school and really enjoying it here in Indianapolis,” Bilimoria said. “My wife has done a tremendous job in getting us all settled here.”
With his home-life in order, he can focus on his work and see patients one to two days a week, continue his research agenda, and help take the department to new heights.
“I regularly wake up before my alarm clock because I’m excited to get to the activities of the day,” Bilimoria said. “And I really love what I do! Everybody has been incredibly inviting and helpful, and it’s made it great to be back.”
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Angie Antonopoulos is a Communications Generalist for the IU School of Medicine. Previously she served the Department of Surgery and the Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering and is now supporting the Krannert Cardiovascular Research Center for the Department of Medicine. She has more than a decade of experience in health communications for higher education, advocacy, government and contract research organizations.