DrPlowman_ dysphasiaInternationally recognized researcher and dysphagia expert Emily Plowman, PhD, is joining the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center to create a world-class dysphagia center.

Dr. Plowman’s appointment helps further the department’s mission to lead the way in interdisciplinary translational research to advance clinical care models and patient outcomes in dysphagia. Working with colleagues both in and outside the department, she hopes to help establish Ohio State as a world leader in this field.

“I’m at a point in my career where I have great interest in program building beyond the silo of my own lab,” Dr. Plowman says. “Given that dysphagia is a complex disorder, the conceptualization and implementation of truly translational clinical research is best achieved through team science. When clinical scientists of different backgrounds and mindsets work together toward the common goal of improving patient outcomes — that’s when the magic truly happens.”

A speech-language pathologist by training, Dr. Plowman will partner with Apoorva Ramaswamy, MD, a surgeon who specializes in dysphagia. Dr. Ramaswamy came to Ohio State to build a medical and surgical swallowing program for patients with head and neck cancer.

Both specialists say they aren’t satisfied with the current status quo for dysphagia care.

“We believe we can do more to help individuals who are debilitated by a disorder you can’t see,” Dr. Plowman says.

Global dysphagia expert

Dr. Plowman comes to Ohio State from the University of Florida, where she established and directed the Aerodigestive Research Core (ARC) laboratory and served as clinical director for the Breathing Research and Therapeutics Center.

Given that dysphagia is a symptom of another underlying disease, Dr. Plowman’s research spans a range of patient populations, including neurogenic and cardiothoracic surgery, across the life span.

“In neonates or adults who undergo life-sustaining heart surgery, a common consequence occurring in more than half is dysphagia,” Dr. Plowman says.

Importantly, her work has shown that cardiac surgical patients with dysphagia experience increased length of hospital stay, cost of care, risk of pneumonia, reintubation and significantly higher rates of 90-day mortality.

Her published work, “Dysphagia after cardiac surgery: Prevalence, risk factors and associated outcomes,” was recognized by The Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery editorial board as one of the most impactful papers in 2021.

Dr. Plowman is developing a pragmatic clinical testing protocol to identify surgical patients at high risk of dysphagia to inform triaged care pathways. Physicians can then provide treatment, reduce length of stay and curb health care costs.

Supported by NIH, ALS Association, Department of Defense

In addition to the ARC lab, Dr. Plowman brings several lines of funding with her to Ohio State. This includes NIH R01 funding from the National Institute on Aging, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute of Nursing Research. Her dysphagia research is also funded by the ALS Association, the Children’s Miracle Network and the Department of Defense.

Despite her many grants, Dr. Plowman is most proud of her smallest grant. She received a $100,000 NIH Outstanding Mentor Award for her passion for developing junior scientists. Dr. Plowman plans to offer grant writing workshops and build connections between speech and language experts and surgeons at Ohio State.

Exploring new research avenues

Dr. Plowman, who’s originally from Australia, never envisioned herself living in Ohio. She explored the opportunity at the encouragement of a friend who also knew Dr. Ramaswamy and thought the two would be dysphagia “soul sisters.”

Today, Dr. Plowman believes her move north was meant to be. She describes her interactions with Dr. Ramaswamy and James Rocco, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, as “a real meeting of the minds.”

Dr. Ramaswamy looks forward to working with Dr. Plowman and exploring how to build off her dysphagia work related to benign pathologies. They’re already collaborating on a retrospective study of dysphagia outcomes after pharyngeal augmentations done by Dr. Ramaswamy in the clinic.

“There is a goldmine of data here with all the surgeries they do and the resulting outcomes,” Dr. Plowman says. Going forward, she and Dr. Ramaswamy will work closely together to combine their expertise and passion to advance dysphagia care and outcomes.

“There are not many institutions with a collaboration between a surgeon who only does swallowing and a speech language pathology PhD who specializes in swallowing,” Dr. Ramaswamy says. “The work we do in the clinic and in research will be pivotal for patients.”


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