Kurt E. Roberts, M.D.
By Margaret Burke / Photography by STAN GODLEWSKI
Saint Francis Hospital welcomed Kurt Roberts, M.D. as the new chair of the Department of Surgery in May 2021. He specializes in minimally invasive abdominal surgery, bariatric (weight loss) surgery and hernia repair. In his role, Dr. Roberts spends about half his time performing surgery. The other half is dedicated to overseeing all the academic, educational, operational, quality and strategic programs as well as initiatives for the hospital’s 16 surgical divisions.
One of the initiatives that Dr. Roberts has spent his first year working on is the development of a weight management program. The program offers both medication-assisted and surgical weight management options. Care is provided by three surgeons, an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) and a physician’s assistant (PA) who are dedicated to the program.
Dr. Roberts counseled that obesity is a serious health issue. Twenty-seven percent of Connecticut residents are obese, defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of greater than 30. Obesity not only affects a person’s quality of life but also how long that life may be. He explained that research shows that on average, obesity decreases a person’s life expectancy by 10 years.
As more people recognize the risks associated with obesity, there has been increased interest in weight management programs. Bariatric surgery is one of the biggest growth areas in surgery nationally. However, Dr. Roberts noted, not all patients are interested in undergoing surgery to manage their weight. Some prefer to pursue medication-assisted weight loss. The hospital designed its program to include both options.
In addition to creating the weight management program, the surgery department recently began offering the latest advances in minimally invasive surgery in the form of robotic surgery for hernia repair. To be clear, a robot does not perform the surgery. A surgeon is in the operating room controlling the mechanical arms of the robot holding the surgical instruments. This allows for maneuvers beyond what a surgeon’s hand could perform. This technique can be used for all levels of complexity of hernias, including those requiring abdominal wall reconstruction.
How It Began
Dr. Roberts’ family is from Austria, but he grew up in Germany. As a young active boy, he spent his share of time in the local emergency room for injuries.
“I always liked how the people there took care of me and made me better,” he said. “The doctors and nurses addressed not just my physical injury but also my fears. I can’t remember a time that I didn’t want to become a doctor. From a very young boy, I decided that I wanted to help other people.”
In the sixth grade, Dr. Roberts had to choose which language he would take in school the following year. The choice was between French and Latin; “everyone had to take English,” he interjected. He chose Latin because he knew he would need it to pursue medicine.
Dr. Roberts attended medical school at Innsbruck Medical University in Austria. He offered several “fun facts” about himself during this interview. The first was that he paid his entire way through medical school by working at McDonalds during school breaks.
It was one night during medical school that he decided to pursue surgery as his specialty. He had volunteered for the transplant service and was called at 4 p.m.; he would remain in the operating room all night long. By morning, he knew he wanted to be a surgeon. It didn’t bother him to have to stay up all night if he was able to help someone.
Dr. Roberts admitted that he has always liked working with his hands. He also had excellent hand-eye coordination. He attributed this skill to being a first-generation video gamer. For Fun Fact #2, he boasted that he trained for surgery as a child on the first version of the “Pong Machine.”
As a surgeon, he likes the immediate results. This is in contrast to many medical subspecialties where a physician is often in the position of trying to prevent progression of a chronic disease over a lifetime. In those cases, results of the work done may not be realized until many years down the road.
Following medical school, Dr. Roberts completed a five-year surgical residency. The first three years were at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md. and the last two were at the University of Washington in Seattle, Wash. He served as chief surgical resident during his last year of residency.
During his residency, many mentors complimented him on his skill performing laparoscopic surgery, which was a new technology at the time; they encouraged him to specialize in it. He went on to complete a one-year fellowship in bariatric and minimally invasive surgery at Yale School of Medicine. Dr. Roberts explained that the advantage of minimally invasive surgical procedures—when they are an option—is that they diminish the size and/or number of incisions, reduce pain, and shorten recovery time compared with standard open surgical techniques.
Following his fellowship, Dr. Roberts stayed on to practice at Yale for the next 16 years. During that time, he pioneered surgical techniques in minimally invasive procedures, performed research and authored close to 70 articles.
A Move to Saint Francis Hospital
Dr. Roberts explained that, after 16 years, he was ready to make a change. He was seeking a new challenge and wanted to go beyond helping individual patients to focus on systems to improve programs and institutions. He also learned during his career that he found satisfaction in mentoring other surgeons to advance their careers; he wanted an opportunity where he could do more of that.
He was drawn to Saint Francis Hospital because of its friendly, patient-oriented, collegial atmosphere that provides highest quality care. Many patients are cared for their whole lives at this one institution and often several generations of families continue to seek care here at Saint Francis.
“Colleagues and patients consider it their hospital,” he said.
Dr. Roberts expressed his happiness at being able to stay in Connecticut. He remarked that the landscape and four seasons remind him of his childhood in Europe. Being happily married and raising his two children here, he also appreciated the high education level of the state.
Dr. Roberts noted that even though the COVID-19 pandemic presented many challenges, by the time of the last wave of infections at Christmastime, Saint Francis was able to continue all of its surgical services without interruption. He attributed this to having appropriate plans and safety protocols in place and making sure they had the appropriate staffing to carry on.
However, one of the main challenges that hospitals across the country have been dealing with is the national shortage of staff, particularly nurses, Dr. Roberts added. This was an issue exacerbated by COVID-19 and “The Great Resignation.”
“We have a phenomenal team that is really innovative, and our colleagues put in all their heart and soul to deal with these shortages to care for our patients,” he pointed out. He credited the atmosphere at Saint Francis as, “it’s really like a big family that is here to help and support each other every day.”
Surgical techniques are always advancing with the goal of trying to improve patient outcomes, shorten recovery time and reduce complications. Part of Dr. Roberts’ job is to guide the surgical divisions at Saint Francis in the pursuit of excellence and offering the most advanced surgical options to an increasing number of patients.
Additionally, he and his team are now focused on developing a gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) program. It will be modeled similarly to that of the weight management program in that it will offer both medical and surgical treatment options.
Margaret M. Burke, Pharm.D., BCPPS, is a freelance medical writer with more than 25 years of clinical pharmacy experience, including board certification as a pediatric pharmacotherapy specialist. She lives in Manchester.
Stan Godlewski is an editorial, corporate and healthcare photographer based in Connecticut and working primarily between Boston and New York City.