Traveling physician building surgery program

Visiting physician Dr. Mary Aaland is hoping to improve the surgical presence in the rural areas of North Dakota.

By COLE BENZ | Record Editor

Visiting physician Dr. Mary Aaland is hoping to improve the surgical presence in the rural areas of North Dakota.

“What I’m trying to do is develop basically a system of delivery of rural surgery for the state,” she said.


Aaland is the Director of the Rural Surgery Support Program that is based out of the University of North Dakota. The pilot program, now in its third year, began when Dr. Robert Sticca, who is the Chairman of Surgery at UND, realized a troubling trend. Rural surgeons were declining.

“He was the visionary that totally had the concept,” Aaland said. “And [he] brought me on board to see if we could do a better job as a university department of surgery in providing surgical care to the entire state.”

Current projections have a shortfall of 25,000 surgeons within the next decade, something this program is hoping to curtail.

“The shortage is huge,” Aaland said. “We’re trying to be proactive, we’re trying to educate surgical residents so that they have an interest in staying locally, and it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Aaland said West River Health Services was the first to sign up for the program, and Aaland has been visiting Hettinger ever since. West River also has satellite locations in Bowman, Mott, New England, Scranton, Lemmon, S.D., and a foot and ankle clinic in Dickinson.

The services offered depend on the infrastructure of the specific healthcare system.

“We try to tailor-make the program to meet the needs of the community, and then it will build from there,” Aaland said. “My goal for Hettinger…we’re trying to get them a full-time surgeon,”

The problem for rural healthcare facilities—aside from retiring doctors—in recruiting medical staff is the prospect of being the only doctor, and lacking available days off. So this program can prevent a permanent surgeon from being overworked.

Currently the state has eight stable programs, and Aaland told the Record that she would like to see that number grow to 15. “I think we can make that work,” she said.

Currently 65 percent of surgery is done as an outpatient—same-day surgery—because of today’s modern technology, which is one of the reasons this program has been so successful.

Aaland spends one week at each of her locations, so that patients can have some consistency while trying to build programs at each of these facilities.

“I don’t want to just come in and do surgery and leave, I don’t think that’s a healthy model for surgical practice,” she said.

The week-long commitment allows the surgeon to become a part of the program, and that’s what Aaland is pitching when she is recruiting others to the program.

“The goal is to have consistent, effective, safe surgery, locally,” Aaland said.

Rural medicine is in Aaland’s heritage. Her great-grandmother Eli Thinglestead started the hospital in Northwood, N.D. in 1905, and still stands today as the oldest nursing home in existence in the Dakota territory.

Aaland said in jest that she has two hobbies, working and going home to her house in Fargo. Her house has been featured on HGTV’s House Hunters during a three-episode arc, the first time one property had been featured in multiple episodes, Aaland said.