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Hematology Oncology: How to lead in a fast-changing field

Staying on top of research and development is challenging. One expert shares his advice.

By Preet M. Chaudhary, MD, PhD
Director, USC Norris Blood and Marrow Transplant and Cell Therapy Program
USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center
Keck Medicine of USC
Chief, Jane Anne Nohl Division of Hematology and Center for the Study of Blood Diseases
Keck School of Medicine of USC

Hematology and oncology are two of the fastest-changing fields in medicine. In these specialties especially, it can be extremely difficult to stay on top of all the research and development evolving on so many fronts.

As a hematologist oncologist of 27 years, director of the USC Norris Blood and Marrow Transplant and Cell Therapy Program at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of Keck Medicine of USC, and chief of the Jane Anne Nohl Division of Hematology and Center for the Study of Blood Diseases at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, I’ve observed the attributes that leaders in hematology oncology — and their teams — share that enable them to succeed in a rapidly changing field.

Stay on the cutting edge of research and development.

In hematology and oncology, few treatments used today were considered standard even two years ago. The most promising treatments and drugs for these diseases are usually available as part of clinical trials. Physicians involved in research, such as at academic medical centers, have access to those clinical trials.

These physicians also run their own research. For example, my lab has been working on a next-generation cell therapy — synthetic immune receptors — in which we redirect the infection-fighting capabilities of the immune system to fight cancer instead. This approach is not only effective for blood cancers but also, very importantly, for solid tumors.*

Physicians like ours study these diseases at a molecular level and understand the science behind the evolving treatment paradigm for these diseases. We are then better able to select the best diagnostic approach for a patient — and, more importantly, the best therapeutic strategy.

Divide, collaborate and conquer.

In this rapidly changing field, working with multiple subspecialists, each focused on a specific subtype of disease — whether it be myeloma, lymphoma, leukemia or even a subtype of leukemia — increases the team’s ability to collectively keep up with all of the developments and new treatments in the field.

It also helps to have immediate access to a wide range of other specialists under one roof who can provide treatment if a patient develops complications. For instance, hematology and oncology patients may develop toxicities in other organs — heart, lung, brain, kidneys, GI tract. If neurological complications occur, we have neurosurgeons and neurologists here who can take care of it. Similarly, we have pulmonologists who can attend to any lung and critical care issues that arise. Having expertise in areas beyond cancer contributes to optimal outcomes.

Build the right team.

This starts with the recruitment process itself. If you bring in team members who are not team players or who are not fully aligned with your team’s values, philosophically and ethically, it’s very difficult to change behaviors after the fact. During the interview process, I generally like to call people myself and rely on my own references to get a sense of what a candidate is like. At a teaching hospital, we can also train the next generation of hematologist oncologists and learn ahead of time about their work style and whether they are team players or not.

Nurture your team.

Understand your team members — what their concerns are and what they’re looking for — so that you know how to better support them. Sometimes that requires just listening. Sometimes it means providing career advice. Sometimes it means advocating on their behalf to others — such as hospital administration or senior leadership. At the end of the day, they need to feel that as a leader, I have their back all the time and that I’m going to listen to them, provide them with growth and leadership opportunities and support them along their career.

At an academic medical center, it’s also important for physicians to feel that the institution provides them with an environment in which they can grow academically. It’s a positive cycle: the more successful our physicians are in their academic careers, the more our programs grow. And the more our programs grow, the more we attract high-quality physicians.

Push for progress.

Hematology and oncology leaders know they sometimes have to push both themselves and their teams out of their comfort zones in order to make progress. As a leader, you need to ensure you are moving your team in the right direction — not just doing the things you were doing yesterday or last month or last year, but to look for new opportunities, focus on them and achieve them.

As a leader, you have to be innovative, and you have to be bold. At the same time, you should not expect that success is going to come the next day. You and your team members have to be persistent.

It’s always difficult and daunting to take on new challenges, but leaders look at the highest-priority areas and the overall picture, see where the ball is and where it’s going and then strategically direct their team or division towards that goal. And if a task feels unsurmountable at first, they help their team move one stone at a time. Then, they can move mountains.


*Disclosure: Chaudhary has a financial interest in cell therapy company Angeles Therapeutics, a company in Los Angeles developing synthetic immune receptors. The nature of this conflict and the management of the conflict of interest have been reviewed by the USC Conflict of Interest Review Committee.


Preet M. Chaudhary, MD, PhD, is a hematologist oncologist and director of the USC Norris Blood and Marrow Transplant and Cell Therapy Program, part of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Keck Medicine of USC, and chief of the Jane Anne Nohl Division of Hematology and Center for the Study of Blood Diseases at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.