Visionary Leadership: A Reflection on Dr. Allen S. Lichter’s Tenure as ASCO CEO (2022)

By Jack Lambert, Staff Writer

Over the past decade, the size of ASCO’s membership nearly doubled. Educational meetings increased in both subject matter and size, with some expanding beyond the borders of the United States. New journals and publications were launched, and the Annual Meeting increased its attendance by almost a third.

Cancer care in 2006 hardly resembled the dark ages, but it still seems foreign compared with oncology today. Electronic health records were not as widely used by most oncology practices 10 years ago. Immunotherapy and molecularly targeted cancer drugs barely featured in most patients’ treatment.

For an organization like ASCO, navigating these changes is the difference between consistently benefiting members and their patients and slowly fading from relevance.

“If you’re not always reinventing yourself, you’re probably not thriving—that’s true for individuals, as well as organizations,” said Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP, 2009-2012 ASCO Treasurer, 2013-2014 ASCO President, and the Society’s incoming CEO. “The truth is that the world is always changing. The key question is, ‘Who seizes the new opportunities that accompany change?’”

Over the last 10 years, Allen S. Lichter, MD, FASCO, has been the person responsible for helping ASCO seize those opportunities. Dr. Lichter took over as CEO in 2006 after spending the previous 8 years as Dean of the University of Michigan Medical School. With a background in radiation oncology, Dr. Lichter served on numerous ASCO committees and as 1998-1999 President before assuming executive leadership of the country’s largest multidisciplinary clinical oncology society. He also was the first Chair of The ASCO Foundation upon its inception in 1999 and he continues to serve as CEO of the Conquer Cancer Foundation of ASCO (CCF).

Dr. Lichter announced during the 2015 Annual Meeting that he will step down as CEO this June. It is difficult to describe the totality of his strategic influence on ASCO. During his tenure, ASCO transformed from a dedicated but growing educational organization into an international multidisciplinary powerhouse that not only disseminates the most cutting-edge research in oncology, but also takes on initiatives that may alter the face of cancer care for the better for patients in the decades to come.

That this change occurred under Dr. Lichter’s watch was not by accident, but rather the direct result of his leadership and vision. Still, he praises the ASCO Board of Directors and volunteers for any successes the Society made over the last decade.

“ASCO’s growth and success results from a team effort, not just the work of one person,” Dr. Lichter said. “We have the best and brightest minds in oncology on the Board and committees who guide us, a dedicated and accomplished staff who create many of the new ideas and do the work, and a spirit of collaboration and team effort that is enviable. I have had the good fortune to be able to work with this incredible group of members and staff and it is that interaction I will miss most.”

However, those Board members and volunteers credit Dr. Lichter as the engine behind ASCO’s transformation. “Allen is really the catalyst behind ASCO as far as looking to the future,” said 2015-2016 ASCO President Julie M. Vose, MD, MBA, FASCO. “Any seeds planted over the last few years are going to take years to develop. If we have success in the years to come, it will be from what he seeded.”

Making a better organization

In October 2005, Charles M. Balch, MD, FASCO, FACS, announced that he was stepping down as ASCO CEO. Then- ASCO President Sandra J. Horning, MD, FASCO, said the search for a new executive would likely focus on another practicing oncologist rather than a professional administrator. ASCO sought a well-respected physician leader dedicated to the field, with a high level of professional integrity and experience leading a complex organization of highly educated professionals.

Gabriel N. Hortobagyi, MD, FACP, FASCO, then President-Elect of ASCO, was a member of the Search Committee that recruited Dr. Lichter. “Allen was always thinking about how to make us a better organization,” Dr. Hortobagyi said. Dr. Lichter not only met or exceeded all of the specified criteria; the Board overwhelmingly felt that he also brought the ideal combination of knowledge, experience, expertise, integrity, and leadership required to lead ASCO into the future.

The ASCO Dr. Lichter joined as CEO in 2006 consisted of 23,000 members with revenues slightly exceeding $68 million. Today, ASCO has almost 40,000 members and revenues of more than $106 million. In 2006, the Society was supported by almost 200 employees; today, there are nearly 400.

In the years following Dr. Lichter’s arrival, the Society undertook significant initiatives to serve the public. In 2002, ASCO launched its patient information website, then called People Living With Cancer. The site, renamed Cancer.Net in 2008, provides timely, comprehensive, oncologist-approved information for patients with cancer. Fourteen years after its inception, Cancer.Net has evolved into an invaluable, multiplatform resource for patients and their caregivers through podcasts, a mobile app, and blog posts.

“Allen has expanded ASCO’s reach, greatly enhancing the kinds of programs that we deliver,” said Jamie H. Von Roenn, MD, Vice President of ASCO’s Education, Science, and Professional Development Department. “He’s made it a much more innovative organization.”

That innovation extended to CCF, as Dr. Lichter was instrumental in its growth and rebranding. He provided leadership and support to launch The Campaign to Conquer Cancer, which has raised $120 million of its goal of $150 million. Dr. Lichter helped expand the CCF Board of Directors, encouraging diverse voices in its leadership, and provided the bigpicture vision to support its fundraising.

“Allen loves using the term ‘wildly successful,’ and I believe he has put us on the path to achieve this goal,” said Nancy R. Daly, MS, MPH, CCF Executive Vice President and Chief Philanthropic Officer.

Dr. Lichter also led initiatives to improve the services ASCO provides to its members. In 2015, Stephen S. Grubbs, MD, joined the ASCO staff to lead the new Clinical Affairs Department, which offers hands-on assistance to oncologists in areas such as practice management, quality care assessment and improvement, and efficiency and business intelligence. The last decade also saw the creation of ASCO’s Quality and Guidelines, Membership, Journals, and Integrated Media and Technology Departments.

ASCO embraced a wider international focus under Dr. Lichter’s leadership. In 2013, the Society announced its 10,000th international member (now 13,000). ASCO International, dedicated to globally optimizing care for every patient with cancer, helped expand the Society’s portfolio of international oncology workshops and grant opportunities. In 2015, ASCO launched the Journal of Global Oncology, an online, open-access journal on cancer care in settings with limited health care resources.

“Allen recognized the increasing importance of global oncology,” said Peter Paul Yu, MD, FACP, FASCO, Immediate Past President of ASCO. “Half of the people who come to our meetings and symposia are from outside the United States. When I approached him as President and said we needed to reenvision our global strategy, he readily agreed and supported ASCO’s move in that direction.”

Taking on new initiatives

Every department in ASCO embraced Dr. Lichter’s ethos of benefiting members and their patients. New meetings— including the ASCO Quality Care Symposium, Palliative Care in Oncology Symposium, Cancer Survivorship Symposium: Advancing Care and Research, and the upcoming ASCO-Society for Immunotherapy of Cancer Clinical Immuno-Oncology Symposium—were created to offer more education and networking opportunities for members.

Benefiting members also meant casting a wider net for volunteers and training them to take on greater roles within the Society. The Leadership Development Program was created, with the first class graduating at the 2010 Annual Meeting, to help oncologists in the early phases of their career become future leaders in professional organizations. More than 70 individuals have completed the training program, which includes networking and mentorship from ASCO leadership and an opportunity to present formal recommendations to the ASCO Board about ways to better the Society.

Another accomplishment during Dr. Lichter’s tenure is the ASCO Value Framework, a means of assessing the value of new cancer treatment options based on clinical benefit, side effects, and cost. “The risk that a family would spend their life savings at the end of life and completely impoverish the remaining members of the family going forward— these are side effects that need to be dealt with,” Dr. Lichter said. “We have the responsibility as physicians to talk about this problem, to face it head on, and to begin offering suggestions about how we can deal with it.”

Although still in the drafting stages, the final publication of the Framework will help fulfill one of Dr. Lichter’s earliest goals at ASCO: facilitating physician conversations with their patients. In service of that goal, the Targeted Agent and Profiling Utilization Registry (TAPUR) study, initiated in 2015, begins enrollment this year. ASCO’s first clinical trial, TAPUR aims to describe the performance of commercially available, targeted anticancer drugs prescribed for the treatment of patients with advanced cancer that has a potentially actionable genomic variant.

Richard L. Schilsky, MD, FASCO, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of ASCO, is the principal investigator for TAPUR and the driving force behind the project. Dr. Schilsky, who joined the Society as its inaugural CMO in 2013, said he could not have launched TAPUR without Dr. Lichter’s support.

“What’s been so remarkable about Allen and his leadership is he clearly recognized ASCO’s potential to drive major improvements in the field of oncology and for our patients,” Dr. Schilsky said. “He envisioned a future state of oncology care and research and pushed ASCO to help create that future state.”

Facing big challenges with big data

Of all the accomplishments under Dr. Lichter’s tenure, CancerLinQ™ has the most potential to shape the future. CancerLinQ is a groundbreaking health information technology platform that harnesses big data from millions of patient records to deliver high-quality, personalized care to people with cancer and cancer survivors.

“CancerLinQ will change the way we learn, the pace at which we make discoveries, and enhance our ability to provide the best information right at the point of care for every oncology encounter,” Dr. Lichter said. A prototype utilizing data from 170,000 patients with breast cancer was unveiled in March 2013. The first version of the system includes more than 20 oncology practices from across the United States. Although the fruits of CancerLinQ are only beginning to blossom, the project began largely thanks to Dr. Lichter’s vision for a powerful data-driven tool that could propel cancer care into a new era of discovery.

“We started CancerLinQ largely because of Allen’s initiative 7 to 8 years ago,” said Susan L. Cohn, MD, 2009-2015 Board member and 2012- 2015 Treasurer. “He was able to envision the potential impact of this system well in advance of everyone else.”

Successfully building this unprecedented program from the ground up took incredible effort and collaboration between the Board of Directors, ASCO volunteers, and outside partners, thoughtfully guided by Dr. Lichter.

“CancerLinQ is a team effort, but it will be Allen’s legacy,” said Robin T. Zon, MD, FACP, FASCO, 2010-2013 Board member.

“We knew it would be difficult, we knew it would be costly, and we know that this will take a long time to reach its potential,” Dr. Lichter said. “But we are determined to make CancerLinQ happen because we are passionate about its promise to transform the care of every patient with cancer.”

This kind of innovative, patient-focused thinking will define the future of the organization. Under Dr. Lichter’s leadership, ASCO has not simply reacted to changes in oncology. Instead, the Society has changed the way it thinks about what is possible in medicine thanks to the work and dedication of its leaders and volunteers.

“I hope that people look back and say that we created an organization that wasn’t afraid to tackle big problems, to recognize the huge responsibility and awesome burden that we have as the American Society of Clinical Oncology,” Dr. Lichter said. “That quest is never-ending, but it’s why we do what we do.”

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