Missionary work fueled Dr. Kenneth Chang's passion to treat digestive diseases

December 01, 2012
Kenneth Chang, MD, Gastrointestinal oncologist

Dr. Kenneth J. Chang has built one of the nation's finest digestive disease centers for UC Irvine Health with a drive and passion inspired by doctors he assisted in a poor Taiwanese fishing village nearly 30 years ago.

Then a medical student, Chang had taken a year off from his studies at Brown University to work in a missionary clinic. With very little equipment, the doctors there often improvised, using unconventional methods that defied Chang's formal medical training.

“They would have to rig up a lot of stuff, like reusing IV tubing and creating needles out of fishhooks,” he recalls. “That year changed my whole perspective. Their thinking was: ‘If we don't have it, let’s make it.’ Those doctors were my heroes. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

Chang, who came to UC Irvine as a gastrointestinal medicine fellow in 1987 and joined the clinical faculty in 1991, has maintained that can-do spirit. Now chief of UC Irvine Health’s gastroenterology services, he has pioneered novel uses of endoscopic ultrasound for esophageal disorders and helped establish clinical centers that focus on patients and buck the traditional academic hospital structure. He has repeatedly been named one of the Best Doctors in America® in gastroenterology.

In 1993, despite having no background in cancer care, Chang was asked to take over the gastrointestinal oncology division of the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, Orange County’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center.

A decade later, with a $2-million grant from the National Institutes of Health, he founded the H.H. Chao Comprehensive Digestive Disease Center (CDDC), where a multidisciplinary team of gastroenterologists, surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists and other healthcare professionals treat as many as 20,000 patients a year. The CDDC is one of the few facilities in the nation to provide a full spectrum of care specifically for disorders of the esophagus, stomach, liver, pancreas, small intestines, colon and rectum.

“These centers are really the way of the future for healthcare—being disease-oriented instead of department-oriented,” says Chang, the CDDC’s executive director.

It’s a far cry from practicing field medicine in a remote part of the world, but he continues to be inspired by his experiences as a young missionary.

“My first love, my first passion, is still—thinking back to that little hospital in Taiwan—the patient,” Chang says. “Everything is driven by my commitment to helping people at the end of their rope, when something has to be done. That sparks the innovation, the desire to provide good service and have an efficient, comprehensive approach.”

Learn more about Dr. Chang »

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