The symptoms of Parkinson’s disease start gradually, typically around the age of 60. Mild tremors may evolve into slurred speech or the inability to move one’s arm while walking. There is no cure for the progressive neurodegenerative disorder, which affects more than 40,000 Carolinians and one million Americans.

For those living with Parkinson’s, a comprehensive, specialized approach to care can lead to a vastly improved quality of life. For many years, UNC School of Medicine and UNC Hospitals have been at the forefront of Parkinson’s quality care initiatives. In 2004, UNC became the first medical center in North Carolina – and one of just 43 globally – named as a Parkinson’s Foundation Center of Excellence. UNC’s Parkinson’s Center of Excellence brings together a multidisciplinary team to address the physical, cognitive, and emotional needs of Parkinson’s patients.

Dr. Nina M. Browner, Bryson Distinguished Associate Professor of Neurology, has led the Parkinson Foundation Center of Excellence at UNC since 2008. “There are robust medications to improve motor symptoms,” says Dr. Browner, “but the non-motor symptoms reduce a patient’s quality of life.” Motor disorders cause abnormal and involuntary movements and are the primary symptoms of Parkinson’s.  Patients may also experience depression, anxiety, and insomnia, as well as challenges in maintaining employment and social connections. The Center of Excellence addresses these symptoms through a holistic approach to care; a neurologist, an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, and a social worker see each patient. Dr. Browner and her team have found that this comprehensive evaluation system improves outcomes, likely because the patient leaves with a better understanding of Parkinson’s and the symptoms he or she will face.

Over the years, Dr. Browner and her colleagues have seen patients at the UNC clinic only to send them back home to a community without a neurologist or therapists with Parkinson’s expertise. This was disturbing to Dr. Browner, as “people with Parkinson’s do better if they go to therapists trained in Parkinson’s.” In 2015, the Center of Excellence began efforts to bring holistic care across the state by offering eight-hour seminars on caring for patients with Parkinson’s. In partnership with Area Health Education Centers, the team traveled across North Carolina training local therapists on best practices in working with Parkinson’s patients. Over the course of several years, this training resulted in “referral hubs” for Parkinson’s patients. Information on these hubs is available at ParkNC.org, a free portal allowing patients to access lists of local neurologists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, and others trained to work with Parkinson’s. UNC Hospitals, Duke Health, Wake Forest Baptist Hospitals, Mission Health, and many hospitals in Charlotte use the website.

Dr. Browner and her team have successfully built a network of therapists who can care for Parkinson’s patients across the state. Having more neurologists trained as movement disorder specialists – a certification she holds and one that requires an additional two years of training – is her next goal. She sees fellowships and research funding as the best mechanisms to support neurologists in their early career stages, training a team of movement disorder specialists uniquely prepared to support Parkinson’s patients across the state and globe.

 

For more information on how to support UNC Parkinson’s Center of Excellence, please contact Aron Johnson, Director of Development, at 919-843-9902  or aron_johnson@med.unc.edu. To make a gift, click here.

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