My MD Anderson

Dr. Pisters, Dr. DePinho,
This Is My MD Anderson


Leonard Zwelling

does as

         This article by Francois Furstenburg of Johns Hopkins does a
pretty good job of describing the plight of academia in 2020. In a word, it’s
corporatization. Many university and academic health care systems have been
converted into profit-making behemoths with non-profit tax status. This
includes MD Anderson where the latest in management school thinking is bound to
be applied to any problem from the dominance of people with high EQ to the minimization
of the import of true academics and scholarship. Leadership is no longer about
clinical excellence or outstanding research. Rather, those chosen for
leadership positions are those most likely to agree with the president and his
corporate culture. (They probably even tell him they like the dancing music
video. They would. They’re in it.)

         Let me explain. The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer
Center is not about corporate culture. It should not be reducible to three
panels in Dilbert or to a music video led by the head of Human Resources, even
if that HR head is a pretty good dancer.

         As someone whose MD Anderson roots go back to 1984 and the
presidency of Dr. Charles A. LeMaistre let me try to explain what the guiding
principles of MD Anderson are or at least, were.

         First and foremost, it is patient care. While the safety of
all patients, faculty and staff are vitally important, that cannot trump the
delivery of the latest and best in clinical cancer medicine—even cancer medicine
with some attendant risk. That means anyone with cancer who can get to Anderson
will be seen, evaluated and cared for in the most expeditious and cutting-edge fashion.
There is no elective surgery at MD Anderson. Almost all operations are done
with therapeutic or diagnostic intent. In cancer, that’s not optional. If you
don’t believe me, ask any one of the many hundreds of people whose “elective”
surgery was put off since March due to the decision of the MD Anderson leadership
to forego certain procedures during the coronavirus threat. Cancer is a threat,

         Second is research—clinical, basic, translational, and
population-based. This is not an elective activity either. It’s the great
differentiator that makes MD Anderson superior to any other cancer center. Stop
research and you may as well close the place. Oh, wait. The leadership
virtually did.

         Third is education and while the graduate students in the
GSBS whose labs are in the UT Medical School could get to their benches, those
whose labs are at MD Anderson could not. That makes a lot of sense. Not. Surely
there was a way to do shift work and take precautions that would allow research
to continue. All Research. After all, just like cancer surgery, cancer research
is not elective.

         Finally, cancer prevention is part of the mix and many have
voiced concern that mammography and colonoscopy are not being done because
people fear contracting the coronavirus in hospitals. These are life-saving
procedures. If there is a rise in advanced breast and/or colon cancer in the
next few years, we will know why. The Couric effect was trumped by the COVID

         There is one other issue that I have got to discuss in
conjunction with the identity of MD Anderson. I have said this before. The two
assets that set Anderson apart from all other cancer care providers is its name
and its faculty. It is my belief that if the leadership had not lost sight of
this in the last few months both assets would have been better off. Now there
is talk about a permanent shift to working from home for a large percentage of
the work force. This is frankly ludicrous.

         It is the fact that the sum of Anderson’s parts are exceeded
by the whole of the working faculty and staff at 1515 that sets it apart. Ron
DePinho never understood that as he made off with the resources of the place
and fired many of the best and brightest on the faculty. Peter Pisters has now
supplanted almost the entire leadership with non-investigators and corporate
hangers-on who agree with his management style that is reducing MD Anderson to
the mean of mediocrity.

         My guess is that it will only be after MD Anderson slips
behind Sloan Kettering in the US News and
World Report
rankings that anyone in Austin will take notice. Too bad. By
then the real MD Anderson will be a distant memory in the minds of a few
old-timers. Like me.

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