Jun 13, 2022
By Jo Cavallo
This year, Eric P. Winer, MD, FASCO, took on two new leadership roles in his illustrious medical career. In February, Dr. Winer left his positions as chief clinical development officer and senior vice president for medical affairs at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and leader of the Dana-Farber/Harvard SPORE in Breast Cancer, to become director of the Yale Cancer Center and physician-in-chief of Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale. And during the 2022 ASCO Annual Meeting in Chicago, Dr. Winer began his tenure as ASCO’s 59th president. (Dr. Winer began his 4-year term in June 2021 as president-elect; he will become chair of the Board in 2023 for the third year of his term, followed by his fourth year as past president beginning in 2024.) Dr. Winer has chosen as his presidential theme “Partnering With Patients, the Cornerstone of Cancer Care and Research.”
An ASCO member since 1992, Dr. Winer served the Society in several key roles, including on the ASCO Board of Directors from 2011 to 2015 and as chair of the ASCO Government Relations Committee, Cancer Communications Committee, and Health Services Research Committee, among others.
An alumnus of both Yale College and Yale School of Medicine, Dr. Winer completed his fellowship in hematology/oncology at Duke University School of Medicine and served on the Duke faculty from 1989 to 1997. Over the next 24 years, Dr. Winer held a variety of positions at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School. He is most widely recognized for leading the Dana-Farber Breast Program, was professor of medicine at Harvard, and was the Thompson Chair in Breast Cancer Research at Dana-Farber.
Internationally renowned for his pioneering research in breast cancer and for his expertise in breast cancer care, Dr. Winer is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and has served for more than 10 years as chief scientific advisor and chair of the Scientific Advisory Board for Susan G. Komen for the Cure. In recognition of his research, in 2016, Dr. Winer received the William L. McGuire Memorial Lecture Award, and the following year, he was the recipient of ASCO’s Gianni Bonadonna Breast Cancer Award and Lecture. In 2020, Dr. Winer was recognized for his mentoring impact on the field with the Achievement in Mentoring Award from Harvard Medical School.
Why did you choose “Partnering With Patients, the Cornerstone of Cancer Care and Research” as your presidential theme?
EW: The theme is designed to look at how the interactions between clinicians and patients have changed over the years. We want to examine what has improved, what has deteriorated, and, perhaps, most importantly, how do we make our interactions better.
We recognize that the availability of information on the Internet and the dramatic changes in clinician-patient communications as a result of electronic medical records have had an impact on the relationship between clinicians and patients. I am specifically using the word “clinicians” because these changes just don’t affect physicians. They impact nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and other clinicians as well.
Because of the Internet and the electronic medical record, many patients are better informed about their condition. From the clinician’s standpoint, it is beneficial to have a well-informed patient. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of misconceptions patients can develop as a result of what they read online, and clinicians have to address a variety of incorrect assumptions and both confusing and misleading information.
Has it been helpful to have patients communicate with physicians via email or through the patient portal?
EW: There are pros and cons to communicating electronically. Unlike patient portals, email is not always secure. I can never argue with more and better communication, but there is the potential with electronic communication for confusion that cannot be addressed in the moment.
Electronic communication can never replace face-to-face interactions. That said, one of the huge advantages of electronic communication is it often allows patients to feel that someone is easily available, even if they never need to take advantage of it.
What are the goals you hope to accomplish during your tenure as ASCO president?
EW: It is important to recognize that an ASCO president has a theme and sets goals, but they have to align with ASCO’s overall mission and strategic plan. The presidential themes over the past few years have related to making sure we deliver care to all patients, wherever they are, and the challenge of health care disparities. ASCO has also focused on ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. This remains a core value for ASCO.
We will continue Dr. Everett E. Vokes’ goal of expanding ASCO’s outreach internationally. Approximately one-third of ASCO members practice outside of the United States, and one-quarter practice in low- and middle-income countries. We are managing a variety of initiatives that focus on expanding our outreach to other countries. Our goal is to make ASCO an organization that people around the world embrace and believe in. Cancer is a worldwide problem, and ASCO is far more than an organization for U.S. oncologists and U.S. issues. We have a very broad international membership and focus substantial efforts on what is happening in other countries.
Do you have a specific plan on how to reduce physician burnout?
EW: We are in the process now of thinking about how best to address this problem. We are gathering data on the factors contributing to physician burnout both in the United States and globally. Our hope is we are going to be able to identify approaches that will allow oncologists to feel more supported and that allow them to appreciate the positive aspects of a career in oncology.
Your area of interest has always been breast cancer, with a focus on clinical care, as well as clinical and translational research. There have been dramatic improvements in breast cancer outcomes over the past 3 decades, and you have played a role in these changes. How might your expertise in the development and treatment of breast cancer and your recent appointments as director of the Yale Cancer Center and physician-in-chief of Smilow Cancer Hospital influence your agenda as ASCO president?
EW: More than anything else, what influences my presidential agenda is the fact that I am first and foremost a clinician. Everything I do is influenced by what I have learned from my patients, including my work as a researcher, mentor, and administrator.
I still find taking care of patients enormously satisfying. I’ve been really gratified to see how much progress has been made in the treatment of breast cancer. In the next decade, I think we will be able to eliminate nearly all mortality from breast cancer if patients are able to and choose to receive appropriate oncologic care. However, I am cognizant of the huge disparities in cancer care. I think that societal/social challenges will ultimately be our biggest challenge in eliminating breast cancer mortality. We must all work to eliminate these disparities, and as president I support ASCO’s mission to provide care to every patient, every day, everywhere.
I accepted my role as director of the Yale Cancer Center and physician-in-chief at Smilow Cancer Hospital with two goals in mind. First, I want to make sure that we provide the very best cancer care to patients. Second, Yale will address the huge gaps in research and clinical care, so we can make life better for patients in the future.
It is critical at both Smilow and ASCO—and really everywhere—that we devote time and resources to the need to deliver very complicated cancer care to all patients.
You have been an active ASCO member and a leader within the organization for more than 30 years. How has being an ASCO member prepared you for your new positions as the Yale Cancer Center director and as ASCO president?
EW: More than anything else, my experience as an ASCO member and volunteer has prepared me to be president. I have been a member of the Board and have chaired multiple committees, so I know the organization well. I truly believe that to be an effective leader, you have to know the organization you are going to lead.
Recently, I was visiting ASCO headquarters in Alexandria, VA, and I realized to what extent my evolving experiences at Yale Cancer Center are complementing my role as ASCO president and vice versa. I feel like I’m learning from both experiences.
What do you perceive will be your greatest challenges as you start your tenure as ASCO president?
EW: We are facing three major challenges. First, we still have gaps in the science, and consequently, we do not have the optimal therapy for all patients, and many patients die of cancer because our therapies are inadequate.
Second, confronting the issue of health care disparities is absolutely critical to improving patient outcomes. We have to do research to determine the best way to deliver cancer care in the settings that are not currently receiving high-quality health care. Individuals from underrepresented minorities, those with low income and/or limited education, and many others are at high risk for receiving substandard care. We have a moral imperative to focus on and fix this problem.
And, third, as I mentioned previously, I am very worried about the overall health of the oncology workforce. Physician burnout directly impacts patient care, and it also affects career choices, physicians’ mental health, and much more. Of course, the problem of burnout is not limited to physicians, but also affects many other health care workers. We need a healthy oncology workforce to care for patients and to make progress in our research efforts.
Originally published in The ASCO Post; adapted and reprinted with permission.