UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center Magazine Winter 2018 2018 Volume XXXIII Number 3 - Page 9

populations. Not having access to preventative information such as pap smears, mammograms, etc. has some pretty dire consequences in presentation of late stage cancers. The education portion that is linked to early detection can have a huge impact on the incidence of cancer if it is done properly. I think the UAB Cancer Center could also take a lead in education through physicians, not just patients. We should be the center of continuing medical education in the South by providing updated data to physicians in the rapidly changing areas of oncology. Also, education is key to sustainability. If you want to create a dedicated faculty that sustains and expands itself, working with the undergraduate students, graduate students, interns, residents, and fellows is really important. Those are the people who more often than not will want to stay and be a part of UAB. We have an obligation to train the next generation of scientists and physician scientists and engage in the delivery of cancer care. This is critically important to do. Purposeful Future Plans In the six months Dr. Birrer has been here, many would say he has set forth some ambitious plans for the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. He has been identifying strengths and weakness and turning many ideas into actionable plans. Q: We understand you are making many changes in the clinical trial enterprise at the Cancer Center? A: Clinical trials here are already a slam dunk. They do it so well, but need some enhanced organizational efficiency and resources. I would love to see that at least 1,000 patients are put on clinical trials per year and 200-300 are enrolled in the Phase I program. I think we have the patient population but it is an issue of getting space and resources at UAB, centralizing it and smoothing out the clinical trial approval process so that industry can come to us and say, “I really want to open my trial here.” Our patients want the new, hot drugs, and they deserve it. I think that’s as close as I can get to metaphysical certitude that it is going to happen. I would be very happy if our network sites throughout Alabama and even into some of the other states were capable of opening clinical trials. This would be ideal because then patients wouldn’t have to travel. I would love it if we can export what is available and what is important to those network sites. But there’s a lot of heavy lifting that needs to be done to get that set. The other part of this is to actually educate the patients about the benefits of clinical trials. There is a lot of cultural resistance to “experimental therapy.” We need to provide the education and reassurance to patients that this is really in their best interest. Q: We have heard about some plans for a stand-alone Cancer Center? A: I think it’s important that patients come here and say there’s my Cancer Center. If you ask them right now I think that they either don’t know where the Cancer Center is or they point to the Wallace Tumor Institute. WTI is a terrific building but to be frank, it is a research building, it is not where they are going to get treated. Right now where patients go to get treated is kind of scattered — that is not a great way to serve patients, and it is not a great way to brand or market a Cancer Center. Branding is very high on my priority list. A New Vision Dr. Birrer, who was born in Patterson, New Jersey and grew up in Morristown, has a reputation of being direct. He admits he means what he says and says what he means, or as his wife of 35 years Liz Birrer says “blunt.” Dr. Birrer is also known to thrive on challenges and embrace change. At the Cancer Center he feels he has a vision to help it grow and become more visible. Q: How do you see yourself as leader? A: I am a pretty straight shooting kind of guy, I think that honesty and integrity are absolutely critical to what you do. If you don’t have that then you’re not going to make it very far. That’s the way I was brought up. I tell my kids that this is a country where you can achieve anything you want with hard work. This is still the type of society where if you work 24/7 at something, you can accomplish what you want. I believe work ethic, honesty, and integrity will lead to success. Prioritization in life is also important to me: God, family, country, job, and yes in that order. I said that at my internship interview, and I was hesitant about putting the job at the end, but that’s the way philosophically I feel. And my wife is very much like that as well, so it is the way we prioritize. Q: How do you like your job? A: I’ve spent 30 years training and caring for patients, primarily in the gynecologic-oncology field. It has been very rewarding. These are women who are in need of improved therapeutic interventions, plus prolongation and quality of life. The possibility of extending that to impacting a much broader group of cancer patients is very exciting. There are multiple ways to do that, but to do it at a well-established, outstanding cancer center like UAB is really a unique opportunity for me. So for me, it is the perfect job. # K N O W U A B C C C • U A B . E D U / C A N C E R 7