Feature

ASH president: Society ‘has tremendous capacity’ to advance, improve care around the world

Alexis Thompson
Alexis A. Thompson

Alexis A. Thompson, MD, MPH, took over as ASH president in January.

Thompson — head of the hematology section in the division of hematology, oncology and transplantation and director of the comprehensive thalassemia program at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, as well as associate director of equity and minority health at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University — will serve in this leadership role through the end of this year.

Thompson — whose areas of expertise include sickle cell disease and thalassemia — spoke with HemOnc Today about how the first quarter of her term has gone, as well as her priorities for the remaining 9 months of her presidency.

 

Question: What priorities did you establish when you began your tenure as ASH president?

Answer: ASH has so many facets, which is one of its major strengths. Some ASH programs are long-standing, but there almost always are new initiatives being launched or in development that represent the collective priorities set forth over time by successive ASH leaders. Having said that, there are a couple of areas in which I have a particular interest. One is continuing to advocate for NIH funding. There have been some extraordinary scientific advances recently that we hope will lead to development of new drugs and treatments for both malignant and nonmalignant blood diseases. NIH funding has been a fundamental component of this progress. I’m also interested in promoting initiatives that impact access to care. Ultimately, we want our patients to benefit from all of this extraordinary research, so we must be sure that our health care framework will allow patients to take advantage of these advances. Finally, I’m also interested in the impact that ASH can make globally. It is very clear that there are certain priorities we embrace in the United States, but ASH has tremendous capacity to advance and improve care around the world beyond our domestic agenda.

 

Q: How has your background and experience helped prepare you for this role?

A: I’m a pediatric hematologist, and I am passionate about supporting scientific discovery that will lead to better treatments and cures. One extraordinary thing about ASH is that there are so many opportunities for members to be engaged. I have found opportunities to be involved in ASH at nearly every stage of my career. Years ago, I began working with ASH as a member of the governmental affairs committee. I learned a lot about advocacy, and how to be effective in framing a message to a member of the legislature or their staff. That helped me locally to get to know my local representatives in Chicago, but it also gave me the opportunity to go to Capitol Hill and tell a story, whether they be about how my own research interests have been supported by NIH funding, or how health care reform was critical for families of children that I care for — inherited blood disorders that are all essentially preexisting conditions, some treated with costly medications that often exceeded insurance caps creating tremendous burden. I’ve also had the privilege to mentor students and trainees as part of ASH programs such as the Minority Medical Student Awards Program, some of whom are now joining our ranks in hematology. It has also been rewarding to participate in the development of some of the ASH initiatives in sickle cell disease, a condition that has lagged behind so many others for far too long. We were particularly excited to support the bipartisan sickle cell bill that was introduced by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. It mirrors the bill that has already passed in the House of Representatives that authorizes certain efforts in sickle cell disease. We were also excited to see the sequestration spending cap lifted. We felt that increasing the cap for nondiscretionary spending was essential, particularly for the NIH, and was very important for hematologists.

 

Q: In light of the political climate in Washington, how do you and ASH intend to advocate for bipartisan legislation?

A: We’re going to continue working hard to find partnerships, not only in the political sphere but also within federal agencies, which are filled with people who have dedicated their careers to advancing causes that are important to us. We have offered our support to individuals like HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Associate Secretary Brett Giroir, MD, and reminded them of our priorities, like NIH funding and access to care. We continue to have our partnerships with NIH leadership and the FDA. There are many areas where research is reaching a critical point, and we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to support the FDA in facilitating new drug discovery, including completion of clinical trials. Hopefully, this will lead to approvals for drugs that may be effective in blood cancers and nonmalignant disorders. As part of the recent sickle cell bill, we advocated for increased funding for the CDC. The CDC is uniquely positioned to do surveillance, but it requires direction from Congress. I don’t dispute that it’s somewhat more difficult in the current atmosphere in Washington, but we think it’s important for us to be visible and engaged as advocates for our members and for the patients that we care for.

Q: What obstacles did you expect or encounter in the early part of your term?

A: I’m head of hematology at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago so, in order to carry out my responsibilities as ASH president, I’m grateful for my colleagues and staff at home who have always been supportive. With any new position, there will always be surprises, but I am not really expecting roadblocks. In fact, one of the things that has made it really a pleasure and a privilege to serve in this leadership role has been the involvement of ASH members and the extraordinary talent of ASH’s professional staff to keep things moving forward. There is an amazing array of clinicians and researchers among the volunteer leadership at ASH who are just as passionate and have a really diverse range of experiences that allow us to simultaneously embrace all of the programs and priorities of the society. Because ASH and our field are evolving and becoming more complex, I expect the limitations that any one person will experience, but I feel confident that I can rely on colleagues to help shape and execute our agenda and allow me to effectively represent ASH, using more than just my own narrow experiences and background.

 

Q: How can ASH members help you reach your goals?

A: Many of them are working toward these goals in their own way, day in and day out. I don’t want to understate how important clinicians are to the success of ASH. The ASH guidelines that are being developed are in response to the needs of clinicians for clear evidence-based recommendations for management. We welcome feedback on them and ideas for future efforts. ASH members bring things to our attention that we may not see.

For instance, I was talking to a colleague about legislation that is under consideration in California to address the opioid epidemic. However, in the process of restricting access to these medications — which are linked to addiction — patients with blood cancer or sickle cell disease, who truly need access to opioids, may be harmed. This may not be something I’m going to see every day, but I certainly appreciate that ASH should have a voice on this issue.

We know that, in order to provide high-quality medical care, it begins with patients having access to the medications they need. ASH members from the Committee on Practice brought our attention to the issue of oral parity for chemotherapy, assuring that reimbursement allowed clinicians to make the best choices for their patients. This had a major impact on people in the practice community. Another group I like to hear from are younger members, including those still in training. ASH has committed quite a few of its resources to early career development through grants and other awards. I am excited to see the number of young people at our meetings moving science forward and making the future bright for the field of hematology. I would encourage all of them to get involved with ASH early and often to achieve our current goals and to develop new ones.

 

Q: Are there any shifting demographics within the society and the field of hematology? Also, how are recruitment efforts going?

A: ASH has strongly encouraged more gender balance in its programs, including at our annual meeting and other conferences. ASH also has a fairly robust minority recruitment initiative. We support opportunities at the very beginning of their medical careers when many students, particularly those from underrepresented minority groups, haven’t had much exposure to research. This now continues with opportunities during residency training and fellowship, Sadly, most medical school faculty are not terribly diverse, but we hope that programs like the ASH-Amos Minority Faculty Development Program will position more promising young faculty to stay in academics. Another area of vulnerability in the field of hematology is ongoing investments in nonmalignant disorders. That is a fairly broad group of conditions that includes hemostasis, thrombosis, hemoglobinopathies, acquired cytopenias and bone marrow failure syndromes. Our Committee on Educational Affairs has developed an amazing educational roadmap with innovative strategies to give trainees, as well as seasoned clinicians, new tools in these areas so they are well prepared to provide care for people with these conditions. We also focus some of our awards programs to make sure we are considering applications that come in from candidates who are interested in nonmalignant research to ensure there is a supply of lab-based researchers working to better understand these diseases and clinicians prepared to treat those conditions in the future. – by Rob Volansky

 

For more information:

Alexis A. Thompson, MD, MPH, can be reached at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Box 30, 225 E Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.

 

Disclosure: Thompson reports no relevant financial disclosures.

Alexis Thompson
Alexis A. Thompson

Alexis A. Thompson, MD, MPH, took over as ASH president in January.

Thompson — head of the hematology section in the division of hematology, oncology and transplantation and director of the comprehensive thalassemia program at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, as well as associate director of equity and minority health at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University — will serve in this leadership role through the end of this year.

Thompson — whose areas of expertise include sickle cell disease and thalassemia — spoke with HemOnc Today about how the first quarter of her term has gone, as well as her priorities for the remaining 9 months of her presidency.

 

Question: What priorities did you establish when you began your tenure as ASH president?

Answer: ASH has so many facets, which is one of its major strengths. Some ASH programs are long-standing, but there almost always are new initiatives being launched or in development that represent the collective priorities set forth over time by successive ASH leaders. Having said that, there are a couple of areas in which I have a particular interest. One is continuing to advocate for NIH funding. There have been some extraordinary scientific advances recently that we hope will lead to development of new drugs and treatments for both malignant and nonmalignant blood diseases. NIH funding has been a fundamental component of this progress. I’m also interested in promoting initiatives that impact access to care. Ultimately, we want our patients to benefit from all of this extraordinary research, so we must be sure that our health care framework will allow patients to take advantage of these advances. Finally, I’m also interested in the impact that ASH can make globally. It is very clear that there are certain priorities we embrace in the United States, but ASH has tremendous capacity to advance and improve care around the world beyond our domestic agenda.

 

Q: How has your background and experience helped prepare you for this role?

A: I’m a pediatric hematologist, and I am passionate about supporting scientific discovery that will lead to better treatments and cures. One extraordinary thing about ASH is that there are so many opportunities for members to be engaged. I have found opportunities to be involved in ASH at nearly every stage of my career. Years ago, I began working with ASH as a member of the governmental affairs committee. I learned a lot about advocacy, and how to be effective in framing a message to a member of the legislature or their staff. That helped me locally to get to know my local representatives in Chicago, but it also gave me the opportunity to go to Capitol Hill and tell a story, whether they be about how my own research interests have been supported by NIH funding, or how health care reform was critical for families of children that I care for — inherited blood disorders that are all essentially preexisting conditions, some treated with costly medications that often exceeded insurance caps creating tremendous burden. I’ve also had the privilege to mentor students and trainees as part of ASH programs such as the Minority Medical Student Awards Program, some of whom are now joining our ranks in hematology. It has also been rewarding to participate in the development of some of the ASH initiatives in sickle cell disease, a condition that has lagged behind so many others for far too long. We were particularly excited to support the bipartisan sickle cell bill that was introduced by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. It mirrors the bill that has already passed in the House of Representatives that authorizes certain efforts in sickle cell disease. We were also excited to see the sequestration spending cap lifted. We felt that increasing the cap for nondiscretionary spending was essential, particularly for the NIH, and was very important for hematologists.

 

Q: In light of the political climate in Washington, how do you and ASH intend to advocate for bipartisan legislation?

A: We’re going to continue working hard to find partnerships, not only in the political sphere but also within federal agencies, which are filled with people who have dedicated their careers to advancing causes that are important to us. We have offered our support to individuals like HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Associate Secretary Brett Giroir, MD, and reminded them of our priorities, like NIH funding and access to care. We continue to have our partnerships with NIH leadership and the FDA. There are many areas where research is reaching a critical point, and we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to support the FDA in facilitating new drug discovery, including completion of clinical trials. Hopefully, this will lead to approvals for drugs that may be effective in blood cancers and nonmalignant disorders. As part of the recent sickle cell bill, we advocated for increased funding for the CDC. The CDC is uniquely positioned to do surveillance, but it requires direction from Congress. I don’t dispute that it’s somewhat more difficult in the current atmosphere in Washington, but we think it’s important for us to be visible and engaged as advocates for our members and for the patients that we care for.

 

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Q: What obstacles did you expect or encounter in the early part of your term?

A: I’m head of hematology at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago so, in order to carry out my responsibilities as ASH president, I’m grateful for my colleagues and staff at home who have always been supportive. With any new position, there will always be surprises, but I am not really expecting roadblocks. In fact, one of the things that has made it really a pleasure and a privilege to serve in this leadership role has been the involvement of ASH members and the extraordinary talent of ASH’s professional staff to keep things moving forward. There is an amazing array of clinicians and researchers among the volunteer leadership at ASH who are just as passionate and have a really diverse range of experiences that allow us to simultaneously embrace all of the programs and priorities of the society. Because ASH and our field are evolving and becoming more complex, I expect the limitations that any one person will experience, but I feel confident that I can rely on colleagues to help shape and execute our agenda and allow me to effectively represent ASH, using more than just my own narrow experiences and background.

 

Q: How can ASH members help you reach your goals?

A: Many of them are working toward these goals in their own way, day in and day out. I don’t want to understate how important clinicians are to the success of ASH. The ASH guidelines that are being developed are in response to the needs of clinicians for clear evidence-based recommendations for management. We welcome feedback on them and ideas for future efforts. ASH members bring things to our attention that we may not see.

For instance, I was talking to a colleague about legislation that is under consideration in California to address the opioid epidemic. However, in the process of restricting access to these medications — which are linked to addiction — patients with blood cancer or sickle cell disease, who truly need access to opioids, may be harmed. This may not be something I’m going to see every day, but I certainly appreciate that ASH should have a voice on this issue.

We know that, in order to provide high-quality medical care, it begins with patients having access to the medications they need. ASH members from the Committee on Practice brought our attention to the issue of oral parity for chemotherapy, assuring that reimbursement allowed clinicians to make the best choices for their patients. This had a major impact on people in the practice community. Another group I like to hear from are younger members, including those still in training. ASH has committed quite a few of its resources to early career development through grants and other awards. I am excited to see the number of young people at our meetings moving science forward and making the future bright for the field of hematology. I would encourage all of them to get involved with ASH early and often to achieve our current goals and to develop new ones.

 

Q: Are there any shifting demographics within the society and the field of hematology? Also, how are recruitment efforts going?

A: ASH has strongly encouraged more gender balance in its programs, including at our annual meeting and other conferences. ASH also has a fairly robust minority recruitment initiative. We support opportunities at the very beginning of their medical careers when many students, particularly those from underrepresented minority groups, haven’t had much exposure to research. This now continues with opportunities during residency training and fellowship, Sadly, most medical school faculty are not terribly diverse, but we hope that programs like the ASH-Amos Minority Faculty Development Program will position more promising young faculty to stay in academics. Another area of vulnerability in the field of hematology is ongoing investments in nonmalignant disorders. That is a fairly broad group of conditions that includes hemostasis, thrombosis, hemoglobinopathies, acquired cytopenias and bone marrow failure syndromes. Our Committee on Educational Affairs has developed an amazing educational roadmap with innovative strategies to give trainees, as well as seasoned clinicians, new tools in these areas so they are well prepared to provide care for people with these conditions. We also focus some of our awards programs to make sure we are considering applications that come in from candidates who are interested in nonmalignant research to ensure there is a supply of lab-based researchers working to better understand these diseases and clinicians prepared to treat those conditions in the future. – by Rob Volansky

 

For more information:

Alexis A. Thompson, MD, MPH, can be reached at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Box 30, 225 E Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60611.

 

Disclosure: Thompson reports no relevant financial disclosures.