When Jamie H. Von Roenn, MD, joins the American Society of Clinical Oncology this month as Senior Director of the Education, Science, and Professional Development Department, she will become the third oncologist and longtime active ASCO member to assume a senior leadership staff position.
She is currently Professor of Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, where she has been on the faculty since 1985, specializing in palliative care and breast cancer with a focus on how treatment affects disease-related symptoms.
ASCO has always mandated that its Chief Executive Officer be a physician, and it was no surprise that when the society decided to create a Chief Medical Officer (CMO) post last year (OT, 12/25/12) that it would have to be filled by a physician, but the choice of an oncologist—and Von Roenn in particular—to head education came about through “serendipity and caprice,” according to ASCO CEO Allen S. Lichter, MD.
“The position had originally been posted for a non-physician,” Lichter said during a telephone interview, “but we revised it to include MDs as well.”
Also speaking by telephone in a separate interview, Von Roenn said that she hadn't intended to leave Northwestern or clinical oncology, but had been interested in seeking new challenges, especially in the area of integrating palliative medicine skills and principles into oncology, and last year began a five-year project funded by NCI addressing those issues. The original grant proposal involved ASCO as a partner and required that the curriculum be used online.
6 Months in France
In 2012 she spent six months in France during a sabbatical and said she realized for the first time in her professional life that she could give up patient care and still be happy, stimulated, and excited about her work.
In April Von Roenn attended an ASCO meeting dealing with palliative care and used the opportunity to meet with Lichter: “I wanted to pick Allen's brain about various opportunities that might be available in the field,” she said, and it was then that she learned that ASCO was looking for a new head of education. And Lichter said it was during the course of that discussion that he realized that having an oncologist overseeing the education function could be advantageous.
The CMO spot filled by Richard Schilsky, MD, was a new position explicitly created for an oncologist who could parallel some of the physician CEO's responsibilities, and Lichter said his recruiting of two leading oncologists from Chicago (most of Schilsky's career was spent at the University of Chicago) was purely coincidental.
“Education is the fundamental core of ASCO, and we're the largest purveyor of oncology education in the world,” Lichter continued. “We educate oncologists, and who would be better to understand that education than an oncologist?”
Providing Education in New Ways
He said that oncology was facing a new set of challenges and it was important to provide education in new ways, especially to link that education with other ASCO programs such as the Quality Oncology Practice Initiative (QOPI) and CancerLinQ, the ambitious rapid-learning health information technology designed to achieve higher-quality, higher-value cancer care with better outcomes.
“Education is now more than just sitting in a lecture hall,” he said. “It's performance based, and measuring it will make a difference. While Jamie and I were talking, it dawned on me that it made sense to have a great physician educator to take the position. I spontaneously asked Jamie if she would be interested in the education position, and the idea resonated with her as well.”
Lichter said that in retrospect it was perhaps too restrictive not to have physicians apply, and that Von Roenn's unique skill set of being involved in education and palliative care were ideal since educating members in good palliative care practice was becoming an important part of ASCO's “portfolio.” The society is also planning its first symposium to be dedicated completely to palliative care, which will be held in October 2014 in Boston: http://www.asco.org/meetings/ascos-palliative-care-oncology-symposium
Bringing in an active and respected ASCO member “took away a lot of the icebreakers” when working with staff and other members, Lichter noted, adding, “Our goal is not to populate the ASCO staff with physicians, but to bring the best talent into the organization.”
Lifelong Interest in Education
Von Roenn said that she has been interested in education all of her life and both her first and last (current) grants had been education focused.
Born in Chicago, she initially considered a career in special education, and for a period enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College for independent study until an experience during the summer working with emotionally troubled children led her to realize some of the limitations to effecting change in that field, so she switched her direction to medicine.
She transferred to the University of Illinois, and finished her undergraduate degree there before receiving her medical degree from Rush Medical College, and training in internal medicine at Presbyterian/St. Luke's Medical Center, both in Chicago.
She said she found oncology intellectually exciting and recommitted to staying in the Windy City during medical school when she married a neurosurgeon who had accepted a residency at Rush. She was widowed seven years ago and has three children in their 20s, all of whom also live in Chicago.
Von Roenn has been active in various volunteer leadership roles at ASCO since 1986, including serving on the Board of Directors; the Palliative Care Task Force; the Scientific Program, Cancer Education, and Cancer Communications committees; the Cancer.Net Editorial Board; and the Leadership Development Working Group. She is also Co-director (with Neal Meropol and Mithat Gönen) of the ASCO/AACR “Vail” Methods in Clinical Cancer Research Workshop.
In 2009 she became an ASCO Fellow (FASCO); and in 2011 she received the ASCO-ACS Award and presented the accompanying lecture at the Annual Meeting, which she titled “Personalized Medicine: A Comprehensive Definition.”
She previously directed Northwestern's Palliative Medicine Training Program, and is Chair of the annual Chicago Supportive Oncology Conference, an editor of the National Cancer Institute's Education in Palliative Care and End-of-Life Care in Oncology curriculum, and a leadership coach for the Institute for Palliative Medicine at San Diego Hospice's International Leadership Development Initiative.
She serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Cancer Pain & Symptom Palliation and the Journal of Cancer Survivorship, and was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Supportive Oncology.
Von Roenn said that she is extremely excited about starting work at ASCO this month after first completing teaching obligations in Sweden and Nepal. She will not be practicing clinical oncology, she said, because it wouldn't be fair to patients to have access to their oncologist only once a week.
She will remain principal investigator on the NCI grant, which will still be based at Northwestern, and acknowledged that although ASCO has been a collaborator on the project since its inception, ASCO's official backing and her new role as a staff member of the society can only help to ensure that palliative care will be more effectively integrated into oncology training and practice.
Next Acts in Oncology
This is part of a periodic series of profiles of prominent clinicians and researchers making significant latter-stage career changes to seek new challenges that continue contributing to the cancer community.