Editor’s note: Dr. Hudis was a guest on the Culture Gap podcast, an interview series with leaders in many industries who are driving change in their organizations. A short excerpt of the epsiode is shared below; it has been edited for length and clarity. Host Daniel Forrester posed the question, “Why did you want the job of CEO of ASCO?”
There are a number of reasons that the position of ASCO CEO was the right job for me at this time in my life. First of all, in some ways, I've been talking about leading but I also was a follower. I was the guy that signed up to do the tours for the new students in my high school. I was the person who participated in various extracurricular activities—very much a joiner of those things. I liked participating in organizations as a younger person.
The second and third reasons have to do with both personal growth and, most importantly, a new and different way to contribute. In order to answer this, I have to describe a little bit about the importance of ASCO in the life of a cancer doctor, at least in my life.
Oncology is a new specialty, relatively speaking. Effective medical treatments for cancer really weren't in place until the middle of the last century. There were surgery and radiation before that, but drug therapies came later—meaningful, good, effective drug therapies. This specialty of medical oncology as a subspecialty of internal medicine came along even later. ASCO was founded in 1964 by seven people who were focused on clinical care and outcomes, but also on educating doctors who were doing this work, even in the absence of a declared specialty.
As I became an oncologist, I became involved with ASCO as a member. I joined as a fellow. This was the external forum to share and to learn, specifically, the Annual Meeting that ASCO holds every year. That was your chance to see people from around the country and the world, learn from them, and share with them what you are doing. Standing in front of a poster, people would come by and talk to you.
Later in my career in the '90s, as a faculty member I found myself involved in ASCO in various ways. It was a smaller organization—and remember, there wasn't an internet, functionally, when I began. I did not have an email address at the beginning of my career. I say that for younger people who don't remember what it was like, but we used to send people information by mail. I mean, postage. I could tell you stories about the famous 1989 advance published in the New England Journal regarding the treatment of node-negative breast cancer. We had to send people letters and have a big group meeting. There was no email, there were no pre-print PDFs or any such things. It was a different world.
At any rate, ASCO was the vehicle to both learn and to have some influence. I worked on the Internet Services Committee at one point… this internet thing was going to be interesting, so I found myself involved a little bit in ASCO's early days there. Later, I had the opportunity to serve on the Scientific Program Committee, led the Breast Cancer Track, which would be a wonderful opportunity for anybody in academia.
Then I found myself nominated for the Board as treasurer. We were crossing, at that time, $100,000,000 a year in revenue, so it was a meaningful job. ASCO of course has a chief financial officer on the staff side, but the treasurer has to translate those financial discussions for the Board and the broader membership. I therefore found myself more deeply immersed in the operations than I would've otherwise.
Then I had the opportunity to stand for president. This was really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, made only a little bit more special by the fact that it was ASCO's 50th anniversary year when I got to be president.
That year was one in a number when the NCI funding from Congress had been held flat. We had overall lost about a quarter of purchasing power within the NIH/NCI over a decade because of inflation. There was a sense that we couldn't turn the tide and it gave us something that we were rallying for. Fast forwarding a little bit, we made a difference. While each year, each time you bang on a representative’s door and you ask for support, you may not feel you're making progress, our current mood is that the Congress is united in sequential meaningful increases to NIH funding. You start to see that the weight of an opinion from ASCO could help—not overnight, but in the long run—to change things.
I was exposed to the impact of our Government Relations Committee here at ASCO. We were called upon to support and to lend insights into pending legislation, regulation, and so forth. And I realized that with almost 30 years of clinical and research experience behind me, maybe there was a different way I could contribute, as a leader of this organization, to better policy and better patient care and outcomes.
When my predecessor, Dr. Allen Lichter, announced his intention to step down, I threw my hat in. It's a more radical thing to have done than it seems. To go from clinical care and clinical research to running an organization of almost 500 people operating in more than a dozen states and several countries, and having all of the normal business operation responsibilities—it was a very different kind of an opportunity. But in the end, the simplest answer for me is that it was fun. I just thought it was a really cool challenge and a chance to acquire new skills, but also to help contribute in a new way.
One of our Board members said, at the end of one of our strategic planning meetings, “It's one team, one dream.” That's one of many ways to say it, but that's really what we're striving for here at ASCO. It's accountability, it's efficiency, it's alignment, but ultimately, it's progress towards better patient care. And that is what I wanted to be a part of in this new and exciting way.