ChristianaCare Trains Top-Notch Family Doctors in Delaware

Photos courtesy of ChristianaCare

The ChristianaCare Family Medicine Residency Program celebrates 50-plus years of training physicians in the Delaware community and beyond.

A passion for training top-notch doctors and serving patients in their local communities has been a key to the success of ChristianaCare’s Family Medicine Residency Program, which has been preparing physicians to provide a full spectrum of health care services for more than a half century.  

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In 2021, the program celebrated its 50th anniversary and has trained more than 300 family medicine physicians in its history, many of whom have gone on to serve communities throughout Delaware, the United States, Canada and beyond. Program graduates have also gone on to work in subspecialties such as sports medicine, emergency medicine and urgent care, and public health, as well as serving as medical directors and in other leadership roles all over the world. 

The program was founded in 1971 by Dene Walters, M.D., who felt there was a need for a family medicine program in the community. Walters served as inaugural director of the program, which was centrally located at 1202 Jefferson Street in the Family Practice Office of Wilmington Medical Center, a precursor to ChristianaCare. At the time it was only the second Family Medicine Residency Program within 200 miles of Philadelphia. 

Erin Kavanaugh, M.D., FAAFP
Erin Kavanaugh, M.D., FAAFP

“Our Family Medicine Residency Program and its history of education, training and service have created immeasurable opportunities for our residents and the communities they care for,” said Erin Kavanaugh, M.D., FAAFP, who completed her own family medicine residency through the program in 2010 and now serves as director of the program, as well as interim chair of ChristianaCare’s Department of Family & Community Medicine and co-program director for ChristianaCare’s 5-year Emergency Medicine/Family Medicine residency program. 

Kavanaugh, a native of Wilmington, knew from an early age that she wanted to be a doctor and was always drawn to primary care. “The ability to learn so much about so many conditions and help people throughout the course of their lifetime across a variety of health care settings is what drew me to family medicine,” she says. “People often think of family medicine as primary care only delivered in an office setting, but that’s not all we do.” Family medicine doctors are able to treat different types of patients with a broad range of problems in a variety of community settings, whether it’s in a doctor’s office, a hospital, a clinic, nursing homes, schools, wellness centers, mobile health units, and more. 

“While other specialties focus on an organ or a disease, family physicians are trained to provide comprehensive health care for people of all ages, from infants to seniors. Our role is to anticipate our patients’ needs throughout their lifetime, coordinate their care, provide continuity of care when they’re hospitalized, and treat whatever variety of conditions they may have,” says Kavanaugh. 

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As an alumni of ChristianaCare’s Family Medicine Residency program, Kavanaugh is passionate about the opportunities it affords its residents and the communities it serves. 

“We believe our program is one of the best kept secrets in Delaware, through which we’re able to serve as complete partners with our patients and our community, while being committed to teaching the next generation of family practitioners who can go on to become leaders in the world of medicine,” she stresses. “We’re training top tier doctors, largely due to the networks and relationships they’ve built through our residency program.” 

In addition to having residents work in hospital and primary care settings, ChristianaCare works with partners in the community to provide students with experience in other disciplines such as clinics and wellness centers, schools, geriatric centers, homeless shelters and addiction centers, or any other populations they are passionate about serving.  

“Whatever area of treatment a resident comes into our program passionate about, we either already have a relationship in the community or are committed to building a new one, so that learner stays connected to what brought them to family medicine from day one,” says Kavanaugh.  

Kristine LaRocca, D.O., a former resident at ChristianaCare
Kristine LaRocca, D.O.

For Kristine LaRocca, D.O., owner of LaRocca Medical Weight Loss in Greenville, DE, a research project she participated in on weight management and Type 2 diabetes as a resident in ChristianaCare’s Family Medicine Residency Program helped her find her practice niche.   

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A native of Newark, DE, LaRocca’s journey to becoming a physician started after serving in the Delaware Army National Guard and working as a combat medic in Afghanistan. After graduating from medical school at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine she returned to Delaware for her residency program. 

“I knew I wanted to stay in Delaware due to my experiences with the National Guard and with hospital systems,” says LaRocca. “I chose ChristianaCare’s Family Medicine Residency Program because it’s part of such a robust medical system with a great network of specialists and primary care physicians, as well as an academic hospital in a state with a small-town vibe. The residency program was extremely supportive of helping us find our niche and deciding which route we wanted to take regarding the practice of family medicine. The hands-on experience and supportive resources available throughout the program provided me with the opportunity to pursue my passion and eventually open my own practice.” 

LaRocca now works with students from the residency program in her facility. “My experience in the program has now come full circle. I’ve become part of the support network that I appreciated so much, and I can now lead by example and teach residents and students about obesity medicine and how to help patients lose excess weight through lifestyle changes and education.” 

Ashley E. Panichelli, M.D.
Ashley E. Panichelli, M.D.

The role of education in patient health and meeting patients where they are led New Castle native Ashley E. Panichelli, M.D., to pursue a career in medicine as well. Also a graduate of ChristianaCare’s Family Medicine Residency Program, she currently serves as Clinical Instructor of Family & Community Medicine at Sydney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University.  

“I was introduced to family medicine while attending college in Middlebury, Vermont,” says Panichelli. “I did an internship where I partnered with an awesome family doctor who took on medicine as her second career. She worked as a solo practitioner in a really small practice, and I loved that aspect of personal care, sitting with patients and talking to them about what was going on in their lives, how that was impacting their ability to get their medicine or take care of their health. I thought it was such a great way to engage with people and meet them where they were, answering the call of what was needed for the local community.” 

Panichelli went on to become Chief Resident, as well as serving as a faculty member following her residency program.  

“Through my residency I learned how to take care of patients, but I also got an opportunity to learn what I was passionate about, including learning about how practices were run and how to make them more efficient. I learned a lot about leadership and the importance of education, not only for my patients and their families, but also for my fellow residents. In my role as a faculty member, I was able to continue to help mold future doctors in the practice of family medicine and provide them with the skill sets necessary to take care of their local communities.” 

Whether residents are looking to work in an office environment, with a specific population within their local community or in an administrative role, ChristianaCare’s Family Medicine Residency can provide graduates with all the tools they need to learn and grow wherever they go. 

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