May 17, 2021
Dr. Hayes interviews Dr. Allen Lichter for a second time on ASCO.
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DANIEL F. HAYES: Welcome to JCO's Cancer Stories-- The Art of Oncology, brought to you by the ASCO Podcast Network, a collection of nine programs covering a range of educational and scientific content and offering enriching insights into the world of cancer care. You can find all of the shows, including this one, at a podcast.asco.org.
Today, our guest is Dr. Allen Lichter, the former CEO of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Dr. Lichter has previously been a guest on this program in regards to his role as a radiation oncologist back in the early days and the research he did. But today, I'm going to ask him more about the history of ASCO. To begin with, Dr. Lichter has leadership roles with Cellworks and Lifelike. He has a consulting or advisory role with Integra, Ascentage Pharma, L-Nutra, and TRG Healthcare. He's also received travel accommodations and expenses from Cellworks. Dr. Lichter, welcome to our program again.
ALLEN LICHTER: Dan, it's great to be here.
DANIEL F. HAYES: Terrific to have you. As I said, the last time we spoke, I really was focused on having you tell us about the evolution of radio psychology in this country, and was a terrific interview. I hope our listeners have had a chance to listen to it. But since you've had so much to do with ASCO, you've been a president of ASCO, you've been a CEO of ASCO, you're pretty much done it all, I thought we'd take an opportunity to pick your brain about the history of ASCO.
So to start with, I think a lot of our listeners probably don't know much about how ASCO got started in the first place. You want to give us a little background about that?
ALLEN LICHTER: I think to understand ASCO, you have to go back, really, to the very beginnings of medical oncology. In the 1940s and '50s, a few chemotherapy agents were invented and brought into practice. Toxicity was high. The benefits weren't that great. But there was some hope that through scientific discovery and research, things could get better.
In 1954, the NCI created the first National Drug Discovery program, which began to catalyze the discovery of more chemotherapy agents. And it's into that environment that a group of, who were then internal medicine docs, started to use chemotherapy more and began creating some training programs in medical oncology.
That led in the early '60s to an organizing meeting that took place at AACR. And there were 50 attendees. It was on November 4, 1964. So here were these physicians who were interested in cancer, who got together at the American Association of Cancer Research and formed an organization concerned with the management, the clinical management, of cancer. And you go back to that early meeting and read the following sentence, quote, "This society shall not be a society of chemotherapeuticsts only. The society should consider the total management of cancer."
They established dues of $10 a year, and they agreed to meet again at the following spring. And on April 10, 1965, at the next AACR meeting-- or, actually, the original meeting was off cycle from AACR. And then, in '65, they met formally at AACR for the first time.
That sentence, that this is not a society of chemotherapeuticsts, as they wrote it-- because there were no medical oncologists-- but was a society for cancer physicians of all persuasions, was a fundamental organizing principle of ASCO, a principle that holds true today. And it is one of the great strengths of ASCO, is that it welcomes and embraces and enjoys the membership of oncologists of all subspecialties.
And then, as you move ahead in the development of medical oncology, you get to the American Board of Internal Medicine that had pressure from outside agitators, people like PJ Kennedy and Paul Calabrese and Paul Carbone, and Jim Holland and Tom Frei and Al Owens, to form and create a subspecialty board in this nascent specialty of medical oncology.
And that came into fruition in the early 1970s. And if you go back into the '70s, ASCO had a revenue of $25,000. That was the annual revenue of the organization. It's now probably close to $150 million. And ASCO is number two in terms of the size of its revenue of all medical professional societies in the US behind only the American Medical Association.
So that first idea of founding the society, creating it as a multidisciplinary society, and standing back and watching it grow as the specialties in oncology grew, has really borne fruit over many, many years. There were seven founders of the organization. Their names are in the ASCO office. People who come to the ASCO office can come into our big boardroom, which is called the Founder's Room, and see the bios of Fred Ansfield, Robert Talley, Harry Bissell, William Wilson, Herman Freckman, Edonis Goldsmith, and very specially, Jane Wright-- Dr. Wright being not the only female in this group at the time, one of the few African-American medical oncologists in the nation. She had a distinguished career and has had many awards and tributes given to her both by ASCO and by AACR.
So the society moved along. And I like to say to people, you know, what is really startling is that the field of medical oncology, the medical oncologists forgot to establish the American Society of Medical Oncology. They are, to this day, the only medical subspecialty in internal medicine that does not have its own dedicated professional society. ASCO has filled that role from its inception through the time that the specialty boards were created. And to this day, there is no ESMO, there is only ASCO.
And so ASCO has this dual organizational responsibility, one to the entire field of oncology, and then a very special relationship with the field of medical oncology, as we represent that specialty almost exclusively.
DANIEL F. HAYES: Let me jump in. There, for example, is a Society of Surgical Oncology and the American Society of Therapeutic Radiation Oncology, which I believe you were president of as well. So I agree with you that the internal medicine part of it is really unique in terms of ASCO serving as a society for everybody, even though there are these other societies that represent the individual modalities.
ALLEN LICHTER: Yes. There is nothing quite like it. It has worked well. We have never, to my knowledge, had an uprising of the medical oncology specialty saying we need a different organization. The community oncologists form the Community Oncology Alliance, COA, which is a thriving organization that pays a lot of attention to those special needs of community practice in oncology. But even then, virtually all the members of COA are members of ASCO as well.
So as the society moved along and it grew beyond its $25,000 revenue, we hired a professional management firm to run the administration of the society, a firm called Bostrom. They were based out of Chicago. And for many years, a guy named Al Van Horn was the executive director of ASCO. He was an employee of Bostrom, but his salary was paid by ASCO.
And the society grew, but we retained this relationship with ASCO until we got into the early 1990s. I was on the board at that time, but I'll digress for a moment to talk about how I got on the board. So at the annual meeting of ASCO, they always had a member's meeting. And it was like at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. And it was in one of the meeting rooms. And the dais was set with a long table. And the board of directors sat at the table.
And the membership who, those that came, sat in the audience and heard from the leaders of the organization what was going on, et cetera, et cetera. And then, they had open mic that members could come forward and ask questions. So I arose from my seat and went to the microphone. And I said, gentlemen-- because they were all men-- you have extolled the multidisciplinary nature of this organization that existed from its founding up to the present day. But as I look at the assembled board in front of me, they are 100% medical oncologists. And you have radiation oncologists and surgical oncologists and pediatric oncologists and gynecologic oncologists and so forth in the organization. And we have no representation on the board.
And they said, thank you, Dr. Lichter, for your question. And down I sat. But a little seed was planted, I guess. Because over the next couple years, the board decided to enlarge its membership and have dedicated seats for a radiation oncologist, a surgical oncologist, and a pediatric oncologist, seats that exist today. And I got a call, OK, big mouth. You raised this. You raised this. We're going to run you for the board. And I said OK. And I got elected to the board as the first radiation-- sitting in the first radiation oncology seat.
I watched as the society grew. And we recognized, we needed to take over our own management, to move away from the hired hands at Bostrom and to have our own organization. And it was under the steady hand of then President John Glick, who led us through this transition. We interviewed candidates to be the then called the executive vice president and hired John Durant, who was then at the University of Alabama.
And John took us through that transition. We opened an office in Alexandria, Virginia, and began to hire staff. And John was an absolutely sensational leader for the organization during that important transition. And that was in kind of the mid '90s. John Glick was one of the truly terrific presidents of ASCO. And I contributed to that because I ran against John. And John wanted an election. And it was my doing that John became president of ASCO. I graciously lost to him.
They decided, for some reason or another, that they would run me again for president. And I did win that election. I ran against Charles Balch, who was a surgeon. And Charles later succeeded John Durant as the CEO of ASCO as ASCO's second CEO. I was president '98-'99 was my year. And the organization continued to grow. I rotated off the board and was happily in my job at Ann Arbor.
And then, Dr. Balch was stepping down and they were looking for a CEO. And I threw my hat in the ring and became the CEO of the organization in 2006. And that's a big, broad overview of the organization. It now has 45,000 members, as I say, a wonderful and steady revenue stream, although it's been a challenge over the last 18 months with COVID and losing the physical annual meeting. But those are the broad brush strokes.
DANIEL F. HAYES: So my impression, and correct me if I'm wrong, I mean, the original seven founders, I've read the minutes of the original meeting. And they were pretty interested in how do you dose reduce? How do you get this drug? How do you get that drug? And I think there was maybe one or two scientific presentations. But correct me if I'm wrong. By the time came on the board, ASCO was principally a place to present your data and publish your papers in JCO. By that time, personally, I feel that it began to roll back into saying, look, 60% to 70% of our members are community oncologists. And I've seen a huge increase in ASCO's focus on the community oncologist. Is that perception all true, or am I making it up?
ALLEN LICHTER: I think that that's true. If you look back at the first annual meeting in 1965, I think there were three or four papers presented. They were all clinical, and in some respects, as they should be. Because people wanted to begin to share their experience with using these new highly toxic agents. There was just no precedent. Everything was done through trial and error and clinical research and experimentation. And so the results were shared. And the society continued along in that vein not so much as a pure scientific society, and certainly, not so much as presenting basic science research, but presenting clinical research.
I think at the time, it was felt that the more pure science was AACR. And ASCO was going to present the clinical stuff. And as you know, for the first many, many years of the society, the two societies met back-to-back. So a typical meeting in the 1980s was Monday and Tuesday was AACR. Wednesday was an overlap day, and then Thursday and Friday was ASCO. And so that dichotomy of, there is the science, especially the bed science, and there's the clinical science at the end of the week, existed for quite some time until ASCO grew its meeting enough, worked out an arrangement with AACR, and the two meetings divided, with AACR meeting in April and ASCO meeting in June-- again, something that still exists to this day.
DANIEL F. HAYES: When you were CEO, though, for example, you initiated the Department of Clinical Affairs or something to that effect. And also, how did the affiliates begin to grow up? I mean, it was all news to me when I became president. I knew nothing about that.
ALLEN LICHTER: Over the years, not only did ASCO develop as a national organization, but within each state, either a medical oncology or an oncology writ large society was formed. And just about every state had them. It was not a revolutionary idea to begin to try to tie the affiliates into ASCO. Not that were floundering in any way, but they could use some support speakers to be arranged for their own annual gatherings.
And we became much more interested in making sure there was a dialogue between ASCO central and what was going on in the trenches of physician practice in the community and around the states. And so we began to bring the state affiliates closer to the organization. A lot of this was done under the guidance of Joe Bailes, who was president of ASCO after me and had a prominent role in the government relations aspects of reimbursement aspects of the specialty. And Joe was very close to the state affiliates.
That grew in importance and we ended up creating the state affiliate council and hearing from them at each board meeting and then finally, to the point where we had the president of the state affiliate council who was invited to attend every board meeting, and to be part of the board deliberations.
So it's complex to knit the whole thing together. Medical oncology really, in essence, grew up as an academic discipline. It was started at major medical centers like Sloan Kettering and MD Anderson and so forth. You might be too young to remember, but patients used to be admitted to hospital to receive their chemotherapy. And they certainly were admitted, often admitted to hospital to receive their radiation to some extent, because insurance wouldn't pay for it if it was given-- and there was no such thing as outpatient cancer therapy.
But as the specialty then began to move out of these large academic hospitals and into the community, that began this whole infrastructure of state affiliate societies and our relationship up and down. We are not just an organization of academics, although we've been led mostly by academic physicians throughout our history. The community oncologists have a very important role to play not only in ASCO, but in the delivery of cancer care in this country.
DANIEL F. HAYES: Actually, I am old enough. I remember I told many fellows that when I was a fellow, we put people in the hospital. All we had was prochlorperazine, Compazine, which doesn't work at all. And we would give them barbiturates not because it kept them from throwing up, but it kept them from remembering how much they threw up so they would come back and get their next treatment. So it was pretty barbaric. Now, all outpatient, which is fantastic.
Actually, you touched on this briefly, but how about the evolution of ASCO as an advocacy organization in politics, which has taken a major step lately?
ALLEN LICHTER: Even while we were under the management of Bostrom, we did have a legislative government relations team in Washington. And the first couple of fulltime employees that ASCO had were hired in the government relations side. And a lot of this was really, again, we had to represent medical oncology in important areas of billing and reimbursements and Medicare coverage and Medicaid coverage, and so on, and so forth.
And as I said earlier, there was no one else to do it. We were, by default, those specialty society that was going to represent medical oncology. So we had to do that. The surgeons had their own. The radiation oncologists had their own, and so on, and so forth. But ASCO did that relatively early on. And of course, as the complexity of Medicare and Medicaid and private insurance, and the cost of care and inpatients and outpatients, and who's going to pay for what, where, and so on, and so forth, we have become deeply enmeshed in that. Because, again, it's our responsibility to do so. And I think the society over the years has done an excellent job of representing this field.
DANIEL F. HAYES: Even to the extent that recently, we've set up a separate business, I think it's called the Association of ASCO, or ASCO assoc-- I can't remember what it's called.
ALLEN LICHTER: Yeah, I think it's the Association for Clinical Oncology. Anyway, it's named so that it can also be called ASCO. But when ASCO was founded-- and this makes us different from a lot of our sister societies-- we were founded as a 501(c)(3). That's the tax code, educational organization. And as a 501(c)(3) educational organization, we could not engage very much in what is known as lobbying.
We could advocate for legislation. We could do some gentle advocation for legislation. We could interface with regulatory agencies. So we were unlimited in our ability to talk to the FDA or the CDC or the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid and that. But we couldn't do very much on the legislative side.
And we thought for a long time about whether that needed to be remedied or not. In the end, it was decided it did need to be remedied. That is, we needed to have the ability to have a bigger footprint inside Capitol Hill in the legislative process. Virtually, all our sister societies had that. And many of them were founded as-- and I'm not a tax expert but-- a (c)(4) or (c)(6) organizations, which gave them that ability. And ASCO was a (c)(3). in the end, we formed a new (c)(6), which is this Association for Clinical Oncology, that allows us to have a more visible presence on the legislative side of the house and the ability to influence legislation on behalf of cancer patients and cancer physicians.
DANIEL F. HAYES: Yeah, I think most of our membership, probably especially the academics, have always just thought, well, I don't have to worry about this. ASCO has my back. And what I have seen in the last 10 years is, first of all, an increasing presence of ASCO on Capitol Hill. Again, many of our listeners may not know this, but twice a year, there is a so-called day on the Hill. And even when I got elected, I think there were 40 of us that did this. I had never done it before. It was a lot of fun, where we go out and meet with the senators and representatives and their staff, and with specific issues that we think are important for our patients.
We just did this virtually last week. And I think there were 130 of us or something. That's increased quite a bit. And those discussions are now being led by what is essentially a PAC, a political action committee, this association but with a lot more influence that has had in the past. And I know I sound like I'm on a soapbox, but I've become a true believer, maintaining what you and your predecessors continued to emphasize, which is that we are not a trade union. We are there to improve patient care. And that's what we do.
The topics we choose to discuss are related to things we feel need to be legislated for the purpose of improving patient care. I'm actually very proud of this, which is why I'm discussing it. I've had nothing to do with it except show up. I'm proud to ASCO who's done this.
ALLEN LICHTER: Yes. And with the political action committee, it does give us the chance to have a presence at certain events that before, we couldn't, we could not have a presence then. It allows us to have influence as we can support those legislators that are sympathetic to the work that we're trying to get accomplished, and so on, and so forth. We resisted it for so long, it was time and the appropriate thing to do. And I join you in being proud of the organization to have just done it.
DANIEL F. HAYES: So that's an advertisement. If any of our listeners would like to become part of the day's on the Hill, if you go into the volunteer corps, you can sign up and ASCP staff will then teach you what you need to do and how you need to do it, and how you need to say it. You can be part of this, and it's actually a lot of fun to do. And this association has very real guardrails set up so that we continue to advocate and lobby, again, for what we think is best for our patients. And that's another reason I was very supportive of it when it came around.
ALLEN LICHTER: Your mentioning of volunteers makes me want to comment. Many of our sister societies, when I was CEO, the organizations that got together a couple of times a year were saying how difficult it was to get members to participate in the work of the society. Everybody was so busy in their practice environment, or their academic environment, or whatever.
ASCO has always had exactly the opposite problem. We have way more of our dedicated members who want to participate in the society than we have places for them to participate. So it's a wonderful problem to have. It has been that way for as long as I can remember, and continues that way today. It's a real tribute, I think, to the specialty as to how dedicated our members are in being willing to volunteer and serve, and really devoting a huge amount of time. You've been president. You've been on the board. That service is all volunteer and takes, over a career, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours. But people do it actively and willingly. And our only problem is I wish we had more spots for people to have positions inside the organization.
DANIEL F. HAYES: When I became president, I think I had 220 slots, or something like that, to fill. And I had something like 2,000 people volunteer. And I agree with you. Actually, was it under your watch that the designated seats for community oncologists for the board became a reality? Or was that before you?
ALLEN LICHTER: That existed before. That was added. And I can't remember if it was added at the time the subspecialists were added or whether it came a separate thing. But yes, and it goes to what we were talking about before, which is with community oncologists, we felt very important even as today, that they needed a seat at the table for ASCO. So we have this dedicated seat for a community oncologist, and even have brought community people into the undesignated seats.
We learn a lot from our community colleagues and need them and have them close at hand.
DANIEL F. HAYES: I have said many, many times before I was on the board and when I was president that the academics, including myself, will speak up to show you how smart they are. But the community oncologists on the board were there for a very real reason. And I learned very quickly my first year on the board, keep my mouth shut and listen to these folks because they had a lot to tell us. They're there because they want to make things well. I think the academics are too. They want to make things better. But the community oncologists are giving money up out of their pocket. They could be seeing patients. And they're there on the board because they feel that they have a real set of concerns.
And again, I'm proud of the fact that the board of directors is made up of a fair number of them who have really been instrumental in what we do and how we do it.
ALLEN LICHTER: Yeah. I have to be a little bit of a Homer and say, that certainly, Dan, you're at the University of Michigan. And I used to be at the University of Michigan, but we've had three presidents of ASCO in modern times, my presidency and your presidency, and now Lori Pierce. And of course, two of those people are--
DANIEL F. HAYES: Actually, Doug Blayney, so four.
ALLEN LICHTER: Doug was president while he was at Michigan. Absolutely, don't want to forget Dr. Blayney. And of course, two of those presidents were radiation oncologists from the department I used to lead. And we are very proud of the work that the Red Hawks from Michigan are doing inside ASCO.
DANIEL F. HAYES: Go blue. I think that pretty much uses up our alotted time here. Is there anything else about the history of ASCO you think that our listeners ought to know about that they might not?
ALLEN LICHTER: You know, we are regarded as really, a highly successful and highly effective society. Many organizations in medicine have come to look to ASCO for ideas, for policy positions, for ways of running the organization. We have a fabulous staff made up of both of about five physicians in our senior staff and a number of distinguished professionals who support our policy and membership in meetings, and so many other parts of our organization.
We created the Journal of Clinical Oncology out of nothing and built it into the most important clinical journal in oncology today. It's an ever-changing critically important piece of the oncology ecosphere. And it's an organization I'm very proud of.
DANIEL F. HAYES: Me too. So with that, I will say to you what I said to you last time, thanks for all you've done for the field. Thanks for all you've done for ASCO, and thanks for all you've done for me personally as well. And appreciate the time you spent with us today
ALLEN LICHTER: Dan, it's been a pleasure.
DANIEL F. HAYES: Until next time, thank you for listening to this JCO's Cancer Stories-- The Art of Oncology podcast. If you enjoyed what you heard today, don't forget to give us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. While you're there, be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode. JCO's Cancer Stories: The Art of Oncology podcast is just one of ASCO's many podcasts. You can find all the shows at podcast.asco.org.