Emerging experts at UHN are shining a light on chronic digestive conditions

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Two University Health Network (UHN) digestive health specialists are improving patient care for those living with Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis. Following the conclusion of their postdoctoral fellowships, Drs. Parul Tandon and Alexa Sasson will now help to transform this area of care at UHN, through a first-of-its-kind disease management and research program.

For anyone who has had a stomach ache or food poisoning, digestive issues can be extremely inconvenient – however, these are only temporary bouts of sickness. Crohn’s disease (Crohn’s) and ulcerative colitis (colitis) are chronic inflammatory illnesses of the gastrointestinal tract and can be incredibly disruptive in patients’ daily routines.

Thanks to this program, individuals with Crohn’s and colitis can now visit the Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) clinic, a place where they can receive holistic and specialized care, such as diagnosis, treatment, symptom management education and urgent care. Drs. Tandon and Sasson will be seeing patients alongside their mentor and IBD specialist, Dr. Maria Cino, who has been instrumental in the growth and success of this program.

Dr. Parul Tandon, Clinical Associate, Division of Gastroenterology & Hepatology, Faculty of Medicine – University of Toronto. (Photo: UHN)

Improving patient care for Crohn’s and colitis

The journey to access care for Crohn’s and colitis is not as straight-forward as seeing a doctor and getting a diagnosis. Drs. Sasson and Tandon see patients from all stages in their journey: from patients who are undiagnosed and struggling with symptoms to those looking for relief through advanced therapies to patients who want to learn about other techniques on how to manage their illness.

As with any chronic condition, the management of Crohn’s and colitis is a fine balance. Inflammation flare-ups can be triggered by various factors such as lack of physical activity, poor sleep, diet or stress, and can also impact other areas of patient well-being, like mental health. Dr. Sasson emphasizes the importance of approaching patient care from all directions, that it’s not just about providing “treatment” but also helping individuals find a sustainable way to manage their illness. She uses her focus in nutrition to help patients make lifestyle changes in order to reduce the burden of their illness.

“Parts of Crohn’s and colitis treatment is dietary management and environmental factor adjustment,” she says, “by conducting nutritional assessments and helping patients optimize their diet, you can improve their nutritional fitness – and ultimately, their disease management.”

Dr. Alexa Sasson, Clinical Associate, Division of Gastroenterology & Hepatology, Faculty of Medicine – University of Toronto. (Photo: UHN)

Expanding Crohn’s and colitis research at UHN

This Crohn’s and colitis program is part of the Driscoll Family Digestive Health Centre at UHN and is overseen by Dr. Louis Liu, Head of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. The development of this program is part of Dr. Liu’s vision to build a comprehensive Digestive Health Centre, which brings together experts from multiple disciplines to provide patients with the right tools to manage their conditions. The Driscoll Family Digestive Health Centre also extends support to community physicians who may not have access to large specialized health centers when diagnosing and treating patients with digestive diseases.

Along with patient care, Dr. Liu wants to use this new program to improve the understanding of Crohn’s and colitis through dedicated research and education efforts. He is currently laying the foundations for a robust research program. His first milestone is to create a Crohn’s and colitis database.

With the help of Dr. Tandon, Dr. Liu will collection patient information to populate the database with – patient symptoms, which treatments patients access and which therapies ultimately help patients. The database will then help Drs. Tandon and Sasson investigate a variety of research questions examining the rise in Crohn’s and colitis cases, as well as the higher rates of Crohn’s and colitis in certain marginalized communities. With her interest in nutrition, Dr. Sasson will also use the database to identify and guide nutrition care management practices to best benefit patients.

The program will also provide educational opportunities to train the next generation of leaders in Crohn’s and colitis.  Clinical fellows who are looking to specialize in this area, will have the opportunity to be mentored by established digestive health specialists and gain hands-on work with patients, as well as to conduct vital research into better understanding these diseases.

Dr. Louis Liu, Head of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. (Photo: UHN)

Supporting digestive health at UHN

Due to the generosity of donor support to the Driscoll Family Digestive Health Centre, Dr. Liu and his team have been able to develop the most advanced health care and research programs for patients living with digestive diseases, including Crohn’s and colitis, ranking it as the top Digestive Health program in Canada.

“The biggest limitation to IBD care in North America is access to comprehensive care. Without donor support, it is almost impossible to build a collaborative program for any chronic illness,” says Dr. Tandon.

Dr. Sasson continues, “We are very grateful to the donors of the Driscoll Family Digestive Health Centre who allow us to enhance patient care and health outcomes.

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