Last month, President Obama filled two critically important national healthcare leadership positions. Harold Varmus, M.D., was appointed to serve as director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Donald Berwick, M.D., former president and chief executive officer for the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, was appointed to administer the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
These two gentlemen may be leading different organizations, but together with other Obama appointees, they represent a new direction for healthcare in Washington. They join other important Washington leaders in biomedicine including National Institutes of Health director, Francis Collins, M.D. and Food and Drug Commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, M.D.
A co-recipient of a Nobel Prize for studies of the genetic basis of cancer, Dr. Varmus is an accomplished physician-researcher and administrator, with nearly three decades of experience in cancer research. He and his colleagues studied oncogenic retroviruses which led to the isolation of many cellular genes that normally control growth and development and are frequently mutated in human cancers. Dr. Varmus is also recognized for his studies of the replication cycles of retroviruses and hepatitis B viruses and the genes implicated in cancer. An experienced administrator, Dr. Varmus served as president and chief executive officer of Memorial Sloan Kettering Institute as well as director of the National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Berwick is known as a passionate advocate for improving the health care system. Formerly the president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving healthcare throughout the world, Dr. Berwick has studied the management of health care systems with an emphasis on using scientific methods and evidence-based medicine, as well as comparative effectiveness research, to improve the tradeoff among quality, safety and cost.
In their new roles, Drs. Varmus and Berwick have the potential to make a significant impact on the world of cancer research and treatment specifically and biomedical research and practice generally. While it may seem that these events in our country's capitol have little to do with Western Pennsylvania, that couldn't be further from the truth. How cancer research is funded, and how cancer treatment will be reimbursed — these are decisions coming from Washington that directly affect the citizens of Pennsylvania.
More changes are likely to occur at the state and national level with the mid-term elections in November. I encourage everyone in our community to learn about the candidates and understand their various stances on health care reform, cancer research funding and cancer education. Cancer still casts far too wide a net. Whether you personally have been diagnosed or cared for a loved one with the disease or simply know someone with cancer, it's vital to understand that funds for biomedical research and medical care through Medicare and Medicaid for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania rely in large part on funds from Washington, D.C. I implore you to become acquainted with the issues and the candidates over the fall and vote in November.