Social media and the news these days are full of reports on how some people struggle to fill their days with meaningful activity. This has not been a challenge for HCCC faculty, staff, students and volunteers. The mission of Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center – “to decrease the pain and suffering caused by cancer in Iowa, surrounding communities, and the world through improved cancer prevention and treatment based on three interdependent missions of research, clinical service and education” – is unchanged. Needless to say, our approach to addressing this mission has been impacted significantly. We have adjusted to, and indeed thrived through, this challenge because of the remarkable members of our team.
It is difficult for all of us to identify and address, on our own, those areas where we should and can do a better job. Sometimes dealing with day to day challenges limits our ability to step back and look at the big picture. Sometimes we might see an issue that needs to be addressed but hesitate to do so because of concerns about unintended consequences we know or suspect might result from implementing a solution. Sometimes we might not realize there is a better way. Sometimes we might see a better way, but are simply unable to implement the needed change on our own. This certainly is true for a complex organization such as a comprehensive cancer center where we are working to reduce the burden of cancer across the spectrum of clinical care, research and education – where opportunities and challenges are ever present and ever changing.
Achieving our potential requires we ask ourselves whether we are we doing our best to…
- Identify and support the most promising cancer research.
- Recruit and retain the best faculty, staff, students and volunteers.
- Bring advances from the research lab to where they help patients as quickly as possible.
- Provide state-of-the-art, personalized clinical care and service to every patient.
- Educate the next generation of cancer researchers and caregivers.
- Work within our community and across the state to disseminate advances so they help as many people as possible.
- Collaborate optimally with other units within our own institution (departments, colleges, the hospital, etc).
- Collaborate optimally with outside institutions (referring physicians and medical centers, other cancer centers, the National Cancer Institute, etc).
- Structure our own efforts to be as efficient and effective as possible to facilitate our ability to do all of these things well.
In addition to self-reflection and internal discussion, it helps to ask outsiders to take a fresh look and advise us on how to improve. One of the most forward-thinking aspects of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Cancer Centers Program is the requirement that every cancer center have a yearly visit from an External Advisory Board (EAB) composed of experts from other cancer centers. Making optimal use of an EAB requires the hosting cancer center be totally open. We do not try to hide or paper over our major challenges when our EAB visits. Instead, we put them front and center. For the EAB to do its job and help us improve, it needs to be highly critical. As Oscar Wilde said “true friends stab you in the front.” Having an EAB say “keep it up, you are doing an excellent job,” just doesn’t cut it. We need the EAB to tell us how we can do better. Our EAB will be visiting next month and our presentations to them will include a discussion of what we are doing with a particular focus on where we feel we can improve. We will put down our armor, show them our soft underbelly, and say “hit me with your best shot.”
I have the privilege of serving on the EABs of nine other NCI-designated cancer centers and chairing five of them. I have no doubt participating on these boards helps me do my job at Holden more effectively. I get to see how other cancer centers handle particularly difficult issues. Sometimes I return home with a new idea of how we can address a gnarly challenge. Just as commonly, I return home after seeing a cancer center’s approach to dealing with a problem, grateful for the team we have at Iowa and the solution we have found to a problem that another center is struggling to address.
Sometimes it feels a bit awkward being on an EAB when I beat up on my colleagues and friends, and am rewarded for doing so by a nice meal and a sincere “thank you.” When our EAB visits next month, I am sure they will return the favor. I will say “hit me with your best shot,” and when they happily (and hopefully ruthlessly) comply, I will feed them and express my deepest appreciation.
Last month I attended a series of meetings at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Washington DC. As was the case many times this winter, weather created havoc with air travel. This disruption caused me considerable anxiety as I rode to the airport after my last meeting. I wondered if my flights would be delayed or cancelled. As it turned out, I scrambled and got on a flight as soon as I arrived at the airport. This flight was scheduled to leave earlier in the day but was delayed because of weather. So … I left Washington for home earlier than planned. In this case, the disruption in air traffic worked in my favor. Continue reading
On a recent trip out of town, I had a bit of a disagreement with my rental car. I wanted to find NPR and listen to the news. First I tried the preset buttons on the radio, which led me to talk show hosts yelling at each other and golden oldies – not what I was looking for. I then tried scanning up and down the dial, where I found mostly Justin Bieber and Katy Perry (I would not have known who the “artists” were without the help of the hyper-kinetic DJ). I eventually gave up. Continue reading