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The answer man: CentraState's Tomkovich helping China update its breast cancer treatments

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Dr. Kenneth Tomkovich of CentraState Medical Center.
Dr. Kenneth Tomkovich of CentraState Medical Center. - ()

After giving a lecture on breast interventions, a chapter in a textbook on interventional radiology that he wrote, Dr. Kenneth Tomkovich of CentraState Medical Center, was approached by a group of doctors from China at a medical conference in Tampa, Florida, in 2009.

The doctors were looking for more insight into his work involving breast cancer, and even suggested he should visit their country in an effort to work together.

Tomkovich didn’t think much more of it when he returned to New Jersey, but he later received an official invitation.

Next thing he knew, he was on his way to a country he had never been to before to teach doctors about breast cancer care.

What he saw when he got there astounded him.

Tomkovich thought he was going to get a chance to discuss advanced therapies, but he ended up spending a lot of time on basic care, including when to perform surgeries.

When he arrived, he found women were using surgery as a treatment regardless of what stage of cancer they had.

“Women over there were basically just getting surgical options” for some of the most benign cancer cases, Tomkovich said. “I focused on teaching as much as I could so they could improve their patient outcomes and patient morbidities.”

Tomkovich also learned that he literally was the answer man.

While on his first trip to Guangzhou, he was taken on a tour of China’s first and only breast cancer care center.

When he walked into the center, he found copies of his articles and the section of his textbook from the 2009 conference sitting on a table.

“They told me (I’m) part of the reason (they) opened the breast center,” he said. “I was floored by that.”

The trip marked the start of a partnership that remains strong to this day — a partnership that has been eye-opening for both sides.

He has since visited other major cities in his four trips in the past six years, including Beijing, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Shanghai and Suzhou.

Tomkovich said it was an incredible experience to see that China, despite being in an industrialized nation, has such a lack of progressive treatments available. And a lack of modern facilities.

“Some of it was very modern and up-to-date, and some of it clearly wasn’t,” he said. “It seemed like every city I went to had a building a thousand feet tall. But some of it, particularly in the health care field back in 2010, wasn’t up to speed. I’ve been to some very impressive hospitals, but there is still work to be done.”

“They understood very clearly that they could improve and wanted to do so and learn as much from me as they could to step up care and approach the level of care and delivery as here in the U.S.”
Dr. Kenneth Tomkovich, CentraState Medical Center

Tomkovich said he has helped teach his Chinese counterparts how to involve a multidisciplinary team in caring for a cancer patient, as well as introduce them to treatment methods still being developed in the U.S., such as cryoablation, which uses cold temperature and ice to kill the cancer.

He also said he was humbled by their willingness to open up to him and his ideas on changing treatment.

“They are really caring and compassionate people,” he said. “They really care about their patients and patient outcomes.

“They understood very clearly that they could improve and wanted to do so and learn as much from me as they could to step up care and approach the level of care and delivery as here in the U.S.”

His impact in China is hard to quantify.

A CentraState spokeswoman compared it to a Chinese doctor coming over to the U.S. and training major city doctors on a certain procedure that ends up impacting the entire country’s health care delivery.

“I’m really honored and humbled that I can have a small part” in a ripple effect that has changed thousands of lives, Tomkovich said. “I’m really glad relationships are forming and developing between our institute and China.”

“It has made me a better physician and … gives me a broader perspective,” he said. “The doctors in China have told me how many people’s lives have been affected over there.”

And the lives his work has touched goes beyond China and into India and Libya.

On his first trip to China, Tomkovich said he met an Indian doctor training there. He told Tomkovich that what Tomkovich was teaching them didn’t exist in India either.

The doctor kept in touch on Facebook and has continued spreading word not only within India, but also in Libya, when he went for a few years as a physician.

At the same time, Tomkovich said, he faces a different set of challenges in his home state. Though October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, he still sees patients coming for treatment with late-stage cancers that could have been caught earlier with proper screenings.

He still finds time to be involved actively in the local community and is on the board of trustees for CentraState’s foundation.

“It has been difficult, at times,” Tomkovich said.

He travels to China on his own time, and credits his family with being patient and supportive.

“It has certainly been a sacrifice, but well worth it,” Tomkovich said.

E-mail to: anjaleek@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @anjkhem

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