Dr. Ifueko Okundaye on Staying Independent and the Doctor-Patient Relationship

by Nikki Kallio
December 18, 2017

Having a strong support system is one of the reasons Dr. Ifueko Okundaye followed her pathway into medicine, and now it’s something she wants to give back to her patients.

“You have to build a little world of support around you,” Okundaye said. “Health is not just the absence of a broken leg, it means being at peace. It’s that complete picture –physical, mental and spiritual health – that I think we all should be striving to achieve.”

Even when Okundaye trains nurse practitioners and resident physicians, she makes a point to teach them to develop a kinder bedside manner, adding simple touches that make a difference, like pulling up a chair and meeting people eye-to-eye. “I might have been helped along the way by culture, because my culture is very respectful of everyone, but particularly of older folks.”

Okundaye, who arrived in the Fox Cities in 1996 as a specialist in the Affinity system, got “inspired and propelled” down a medical path early on, led by a combination of professional, family and spiritual guidance. 

“In Nigeria, children are guided a lot more by the adults around them,” Okundaye said.

“Prophetically, I was given the middle name ‘Egberamwen,’ which means ‘good health.’ My name ‘Ifueko’ in my native Nigerian language, Bini, literally means ‘I make the stomach feel better.’”

Between her support system, her prescient names and her natural ability at science and math, her path into medicine seemed like a natural fit. 

Okundaye’s medical education led her to specialize in nephrology, or kidney diseases. After working with Affinity, she launched her independent practice at Theda Clark Medical Center in 2002, moving to her current location at 1540 Lyon Drive, Neenah, two years later, adding primary and urgent care services.

“In addition to treating our own patients, we recognize that people can’t always get in to see their own doctor when they need help, so this is one of the niches that we fill,” Okundaye said. “We let people come see us, and then follow up with their regular doctor later.”

Patients are sometimes taken aback by the ability to be seen within 24 hours. They’re also surprised not to be hassled about having the wrong or no insurance – Okundaye’s office works with the gamut. She went independent partially to be able to offer that freedom in coverage. But standing alone had it challenges, and she joined NOVO in 2017. 

“More and more, I found myself left alone because the small practices have pretty much disappeared at this point,” Okundaye said. “When I started, I was one of a group of four independents, and I am the last woman standing. We are the only private practice left in Neenah.”

Some of the challenges of the changing medical landscape have hit the independent practices hard. That includes the proliferation of urgent care facilities and free-standing pharmacies, as well as the transition of medical records from paper to electronic, a capital-heavy venture for a private practice. It’s a transition that some of Okundaye’s colleagues chose to forgo in favor of early retirement. The ongoing challenges led Okundaye to research partnerships.

“I thought it was best to partner with a group that already had other individual physicians under its wing, so I reached out to NOVO,” Okundaye said. “And we’ve been an item ever since.”

As NOVO Health expands its service offerings to encompass all aspects of health care, the organization is driven to include physicians that deliver the highest quality care and exceptional patient experience, said Sandi Rochon, administrator of NeuroSpine Center of Wisconsin.

“Dr. Okundaye’s special relationship with the community and focus on the patient as the center of healthcare makes her the perfect partner for us,” Rochon said.

For Okundaye, partnering also provides additional resources for her office, such as a better way to advertise her practice. 

“It’s a means to not be so isolated,” she said. “One of our limitations is we’ve been in this location for more than 10 years, but people don’t know. I’ve been in the community for 21 years, and people know who you are, but they don’t know you’re taking patients.”

Joining NOVO has allowed Okundaye to stay connected with other small practices and keep updated with relevant community developments. Additionally, Okundaye’s office has been able to give back to the community as part of a mentoring program for high school kids interested in careers in medicine through NOVO.

Okundaye completed her medical degree at the University of Benin in Nigeria, finishing her training at the University of Chicago program at Weiss Memorial Hospital Chicago, and her fellowship at Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center. Her husband, Bennett, is trained as a chemical engineer and later entered into real estate and property management to free up more time to help raise their three children as Okundaye built her medical practice.

Their three children are now grown. Two seem to be taking after their mother: the oldest, Ivie, is an internal medicine resident, and the youngest, Amen is in medical school. Their middle child is an attorney in New York.

“We moved here when they were very young, and the Fox Cities provided an excellent family environment to raise a child,” Okundaye said. “In the middle of my career I had options to live elsewhere, but we made the decision we weren’t going to leave the Fox Cities. It was that decision that drove the establishment of this practice.”

It was also Okundaye’s drive to provide personalized care, “and we did that way before anybody ever gave it a name,” Okundaye said. “We don’t identify patients as ‘Room 3’ and ‘Room 2.’ We don’t identify them as ‘diabetic.’ We identify them as who they are first.”

New patients are sometimes surprised by some of the questions she asks: What do you do for fun? Who is your support system? Who is your best friend? The questions help Okundaye learn more about her patients and whether they have they support system they need.

The added value is that makes people feel cared for and helps rebuild that close relationship that once existed more commonly between patients and doctors, Okundaye said.

“Sometimes, you don’t even have to fix a lot, but sometimes patients just want to feel heard,” she said. “I always want to hear and validate whatever it is that they are feeling, and that creates trust.

“I feel that this is one of the unique skills that I bring to medicine – the experience of enhancing that one-on-one patient interaction,” Okundaye said. “The best part, still, is when I sit next to a patient – and that’s where the magic happens.”