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Thriving on challenges: Gastroenterologist helps mold program into a crucial powerhouse

Atilla Ertan, MD, will be featured this spring by World Journal of Gastroenterology for his academic contributions. (Photo by David Sotelo/UTHealth Houston)
Atilla Ertan, MD, will be featured this spring by World Journal of Gastroenterology for his academic contributions. (Photo by David Sotelo/UTHealth Houston)

As a teenager in his native Turkey, Atilla Ertan, MD, spent every day after school in the hospital—but not for himself. “My younger sister had developed a heart problem and had to stay there,” he says. “When I went to see her, I always left impressed with the doctors.”

His mother envisioned him becoming a diplomat, and his father urged him to study engineering, but after volunteering with a physician during his summer vacations, he was hooked.

“Looking back, I’m very happy with the decision I made,” says Ertan, professor of gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston.

He planned to specialize in surgery, but an influential professor pointed him toward gastroenterology, which focuses on the digestive system. The abundance of challenges and rapidly advancing technology captured his interest. 

“All my life I have enjoyed overcoming obstacles, and this field has never run out of ways to challenge me,” says Ertan, who has been notified by World Journal of Gastroenterology that he will be featured on the cover of an upcoming issue this spring for his important academic contributions in gastroenterology and hepatology research.

Ertan immigrated to the United States in 1980, and after his postgraduate training at the University of Pennsylvania quickly ascended the ranks of academic medicine with leadership positions at Tulane University and Baylor College of Medicine. He came to UTHealth Houston in 2011 to help build the gastroenterology program at McGovern Medical School into a multidisciplinary powerhouse. 

Since then, the program has grown from five full-time faculty to 28, including 11 faculty trained in advanced endoscopy.  Several endowments funded by generous donors provided support for faculty recruitment and retention—an essential resource to successfully compete with income from private practice.

The program has also grown an extensive patient-centered research portfolio. A consummate researcher himself with over 190 articles in peer reviewed journals and 10 book chapters, Ertan has made a significant amount of original contributions to medical knowledge. He and his team now focus on clinical studies to develop effective oral medications with fewer side effects to treat refractory inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). “Three of them have already received FDA approval, and right now we have several ongoing multicenter research studies,” he says. “Some of these medications are really revolutionary in terms of what they can do for our IBD patients.”

Always a learner, for more than 50 years Ertan has closely followed the development of technologies that help him better treat patients, from endoscopy to laser surgery. Keeping up to date ensures he can in turn provide the best possible education for students, residents, and gastroenterology fellows at McGovern Medical School. The gastroenterology fellowship, in particular, has gained such a reputation that its three to four openings draw 500 to 600 applicants each year.

“Teaching keeps me younger,” he says. “I enjoy meeting new young people every year, and they ask a lot of questions, so I always have to be mentally prepared. I have had the opportunity to train hundreds of fellows in the United States and internationally, and some of them are in academic leadership positions”

Ertan has received numerous teaching and achievement awards from local, national, and international organizations—such as Master in Gastroenterology by the American College of Gastroenterology. 

Among the lessons he imparts to his trainees, Ertan emphasizes minimizing side effects from treatments and, above all, maintaining communication with patients. “This is essential to success in medicine. You shouldn’t just end contact with patients after a procedure. Keep talking to them, follow up, and make sure they are satisfied,” he says. “I have some patients whom I have continued to follow for more than 30 or 40 years.”

Ertan and his team of physicians see thousands of patients from the United States and around the world each year at the Ertan Digestive Disease Center at Memorial Hermann – Texas Medical Center. The center brings a wide range of specialists together to provide multidisciplinary and integrated value-based care for patients with disorders of the esophagus, stomach, small bowel, colon, liver, and pancreas.

“I really wanted us to create something you might not find in a typical hospital setting,” he says. “The community has been very generous in helping us make this a reality, and we look forward to hopefully establishing the Houston Digestive Health Institute soon.”

As Ertan continues to embrace the passion that started him on his journey, the motivation to achieve more for his patients, students, and medical science burns as brightly as ever. “There’s just one problem,” he says. “I only have 24 hours to accomplish everything I want to do each day.”

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