Sports Medicine Doctor Runs All the Options

November 24, 2021 - Lynn Waldsmith

Former Quaterback Nathan Fitton leads health care to complete 40,600 virtual visits in height of pandemic

Staring down 11 defenders and getting forcibly tackled isn’t an enjoyable experience for any quarterback, especially when it results in a separated shoulder. But for Nathan Fitton, D.O., MSU Health Care’s Associate Chief Medical Information Officer, that play altered the course of his life.

It happened more than 15 years ago. Dr. Fitton, now an Associate Professor at MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, was a sophomore studying biology at Defiance College in northwest Ohio. He was also quarterback of the Yellow Jackets when he ran the option offence against Case Western Reserve University at an away game in Cleveland. Although Defiance ultimately won the game, the hit forced Fitton out for weeks as he met regularly with a sports medicine surgeon for evaluation and treatment of his shoulder injury.

“It really opened my eyes to this field of sports medicine,” Fitton said. “I really appreciated the holistic approach he took with me. He understood that (for me) as an athlete, how I wanted to get back on the field as soon as possible but he wanted to make it happen as soon as it was safe to do so. So, we worked together.”

After graduating Summa Cum Laude from Defiance, Fitton, who grew up southwest of Lansing in Potterville, attended medical school at MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. He completed his residency in family medicine at Metro Health Hospital in Grand Rapids, serving as chief resident his senior year. He then completed a Sports Medicine Fellowship at Sparrow/MSU. 

Dr. Fitton now performs a dynamic and wide scope of tasks for MSU, from his duties as Associate Chief Medical Information Officer to treating high school athletes and weekend warriors, to seeing patients in the Sparrow Concussion Clinic, to teaching a basic, hands-on osteopathic skills course to MSU medical students. What’s more, he serves as a head team physician of MSU varsity athletics, namely Women's Basketball and Men's Wrestling. 

“We’re really blessed to have him here,” said Women’s Basketball head coach Suzy Merchant.  “He’s an extremely compassionate doctor. He loves his profession, and student athletes, in particular. He’s extremely kind and really listens. He’s very invested and ‘all in’ in his contribution to our team.”

Dr. Fitton’s care interests include acute musculoskeletal injuries, concussions and osteopathic manipulation medicine. Although he “bounce[s] around a lot,” he says he enjoys the variety of his many responsibilities.

“Hands down, working with the athletes is the most fun that I have,” he admitted. “As we see them perform on the field or on the court, sometimes we forget they’re just kids. We have a lot of fun taking care of them, working with them and getting to know their families. We always joke that the goal is for me never to see them again, but getting them back on the field and seeing them excel and complete their education is a very humbling and rewarding experience.”

When her own 14-year-old son was experiencing back and knee pain, Merchant made sure he was seen by Dr. Fitton, who is essentially on call 24/7, including evenings and weekends.

“Doctors are very busy people. And he’s never too busy,” she said. “He finds a way to make sure our team is taken care of. You feel you have a personal relationship with him.”

Dr. Fitton attends all home games for women’s basketball and travels with the team on post season tournaments. He admits that sitting courtside is often a nerve-racking experience, for more reasons than one. 

“When it comes to games and being a fan, I’m wearing my medical hat first and my fan hat second, even if it means taking the all-star player out of the game,” he explained. “My role is to make an objective decision whether that athlete can play safely. With that being said, I still jump out of my seat when it’s a game-winning buzzer-beater.”

In fact, Dr. Fitton likes to bring his family, including his two boys, Brecken, 7, and Bode, 5, to MSU basketball games and wrestling matches. Dr. Fitton met his wife, Andrea Slattery, at Defiance College and they were married in 2010 at Spartan Stadium. Andrea, a graphic designer, was expecting their third child when this article was written. As with their first two children, they did not find out the gender of their third, preferring to wait and enjoy the surprise when he or she was born. Either way, Dr. Fitton borrows a sports analogy to joke that the days of he and his wife playing one-on-one defense with two children will soon be over.

In his role as Associate Chief Medical Information officer, Dr. Fitton focuses on provider optimization and efficiency, and serves as a liaison between providers and the IT department. He is currently investigating a virtual scribe service to help optimize provider time with patients.  Telemedicine has clearly been a lifeline during the pandemic, and Dr. Fitton was instrumental in bringing it to MSU. 

“Almost overnight we had to try to figure it out,” he said, referring to when the COVID-19 crisis struck in March of 2020. “EMRs (electronic medical records) were not ready for this. We basically had to troubleshoot with white board markers and lots and lots of coffee. And with wifi and broadband not available to all of our patients, we had to figure out ‘How can we make this safe and reliable’? It was a big undertaking.

“It wasn’t like, from now on we’re scheduling patients using telehealth,” he added. “Departments like neurology had months and months’ worth of (already scheduled) patients who somehow had to get to this new platform immediately.”

Dr. Fitton and his team had to figure out how to transition about 40 MSU clinics to telemedicine, then they had to “package” it by establishing work flows and presenting it to each department for implementation.

“We had to educate every clinic -- their staff, their providers -- on how to do their work flows, and they had their own ways,” explained Emily Kostrzewski-Sauter, an MSU Clinical Operations Analyst. “Obviously Psych isn’t going to do everything that Primary Care does or the way that Primary Care does. We had to make it as simple as possible yet as complex as possible because it had to include everybody.”

Kostrzewski-Sauter said she appreciated Dr. Fitton’s sense of humor and how he would break the ice and put everyone at ease during such a stressful time by inserting an entertaining meme into a Teams chat or quoting a well-known line from a movie during a meeting.

“He kept us focused but we were able to joke around a little.,” she said with a laugh. “You’re relieved to be in the room with those kinds of people. He was like, ‘Hey, we’ve got this. We can do it. Even if our EHR isn’t ready for it, we are.’”

According to Dr. Fitton, from March 9, 2020 through the end of July, 2021, MSU Health Care completed 40,600 virtual visits, which he sees as clear evidence that the future of telemedicine is here to stay. He and several colleagues wrote a letter to state and national legislators urging continued access to insurance coverage of telemedicine after the public health emergency ends.

“We have many providers and sub specialties that can deliver care through telemedicine. And in my world of sports medicine, it still can be helpful. Certainly, the acute ankle or knee injury isn’t appropriate for a virtual visit, but think of what it takes to see a doctor. I just saw a patient who was in his office and lives a couple hours away for a follow-up (virtual) visit. So, the impact on his day-to-day life was minimal.”

While the switch to a telehealth platform was, indeed, a collaborative effort, Dr. Satchdev, Associate Chief Medical Officer at MSU and Director of the Division of Neuromuscular Medicine, credits Dr. Fitton for being one of the lead architects of building the system. 

“He has a very calming demeanor and a wealth of knowledge,” said Dr. Satchdev. “It’s a very reassuring experience when you’re with him. When that guy talks, you gotta listen.”