Columbus Regional Hospital has a new medical director of its Lung Institute, who is overseeing an expansion of services that use less invasive procedures on patients.

Deepankar Sharma, 32, an interventional pulmonologist, started at the Lung Institute this summer after serving as an Interventional Pulmonology Fellow at Virginia Commonwealth University and a Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine Fellow at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

Interventional pulmonology is a relatively new field. It involves diagnosing cancers and benign conditions of the lung by accessing the mouth, breathing airways and orifices to check from the inside rather than penetrating the skin with incisions, Sharma said.

“Minimally invasive procedures reduce infection and pain, and shorten the time at the hospital,” Sharma said.

One technique new to Columbus Regional and southern Indiana is a rigid bronchoscopy, Sharma said. It involves accessing the throat with instruments, such as a laser, and cameras to check and treat diseases in the airway.

Another is a pleuroscopy, which involves making a small incision to put a camera next to the lung for direct visualization to help treatment of conditions, such as the accumulation of fluid, Sharma said.

The new procedures can be performed on an outpatient basis with only a local anesthetic applied, he said.

The expansion of lung cancer services at Columbus Regional had been in the works for several years, with the goal to offer more services locally so patients don’t have to travel longer distances for them, Columbus Regional spokeswoman Kelsey DeClue said.

“Even before Dr. Sharma came, we had a long list of patients in need of lung services. They need to stay close to home for better outcomes,” DeClue said.

Also relatively new to Columbus Regional is the Lung Institute’s Nodule Board, of which Sharma is a member. It started in February.

With every patient, every CAT scan that picks up abnormal findings of the lung is discussed by the Nodule Board, Sharma said.

If testing show the nodule is cancerous, then the case also is discussed with the Columbus Regional Hospital Cancer Center’s Tumor Board, Sharma said.

The coordinated effort between the Lung Institute and the Cancer Center aids early diagnosis and treatment efforts, Sharma said.

Such efforts are important because more people die of lung cancer than breast and colon cancers combined, Sharma said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Indiana ranks among the nation’s top 10 states for deaths from lung cancer.

Dr. Kevin McMullen, a radiation oncologist with the Cancer Center who also serves on the Nodule and Tumor boards, said about 20 percent of the adult population in Bartholomew County smokes.

With smoking prevalent in the Midwest, as well as the risk for lung cancer, Columbus Regional for the first time this year began offering lung screenings year-round, DeClue said.

The cost is $49, not paid through insurance, and some months the screenings are offered for $10. To qualify for a screening, the individual must be within the ages 55 to 77 and have 30 pack years of smoking (packs per day multiplied by the number of years of smoking.) Anyone who has quit smoking within the past 15 years is still eligible to qualify, Sharma said.

However, getting people to have a lung screening performed is a challenge, McMullen said.

“It’s a scary disease. There’s a lot of denial,” McMullen said.

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Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.