• Article
  • August 9, 2017

From Cancer Patient to Surgeon to CEO: Hospital Leader Reflects on Career

Kurt Newman, M.D., president and CEO of Children's National Health System in Washington, D.C., has been a practicing surgeon and chief of surgery at Children's National for more than 30 years. His new memoir, Healing Children: A Surgeon's Stories from the Frontiers of Pediatric Medicine, tells the stories of the young heroes and heroines he has cared for throughout his career as a pediatric surgeon. Newman is donating his portion of the book's proceeds to the Pediatric Health Opportunity Fund, a charity that provides support for research and innovation in pediatric medicine.

Children's Hospitals Today caught up with Newman to talk about his views on children's health care and his thoughts on the ongoing national health care debate.

Are there any patients who have changed you the most?

Well, it's hard to single out individual patients, but I think about two—in different ways—who have been inspirations for me.

One is a young man named Tyler who was transferred to Children's as a newborn. He had an incredibly complicated situation where his organs were on the outside of his body, and he had a lot of potential complications. I'd never seen anything quite like it. The beauty of this story was that during a lifetime of surgery and hospitalizations, Tyler has been able to live up to a potential that nobody could ever predict.

He has thrived and prospered. He went to college, he got married. Just six months ago, I got a call from him—he and his wife had a healthy baby son. This was something that we'd never, ever thought could happen given his anatomy and biology, but it speaks to the resiliency of children. We should never underestimate the biology of children and how they can bounce back.

Now, on the other side, there is a story about a young man named Casey. We used to call him "The Mayor" because he was gregarious and engaging. When he was in his early teenage years, he developed a bone tumor. Despite all the surgery, chemotherapy, the latest protocols and just an all-in effort over five or six years, I ultimately had to sit in his room with his oncologist and tell him that we had nothing more to offer.

This was a kid who cared more about how I felt and how I would take that kind of news than he did about his own welfare. You could feel that as he walked through the hospital. You could just feel the impact this kid had on our entire hospital and his entire community. So, in a different way, that's as motivating and inspiring to do more. To do more research or find better treatments, so that kids like Casey don't die early.

These are the two sides of the coin. The great news for pediatric medicine in children's hospitals is that the Tylers far outnumber the Caseys. I've seen that with the advances in the care of children; with cancer or heart disease and many of the other problems children face. Now, we've still got work to do. But I think the satisfying thing about being in pediatric medicine is there are a lot more Tylers than Caseys—and they're both motivating and inspiring us.

Given your years as a surgeon, and your close work with patients and families over the years, how have those experiences impacted your management approach and the way you make decisions as CEO?

I think there are two perspectives that I've brought to being CEO. One that really was transforming for me was being a patient—I had cancer and surgery while I was in medical school. I'm privileged that I don't have to think about it every day because I was cured. But I've been in those shoes. Experience drives how I've thought about taking care of patients and how I operate on children as a surgeon.

I also bring knowledge of how pediatric medicine works in a hospital and in a community to my role as CEO. The credibility and authenticity that comes from working with doctors, nurses, frontline staff… days, nights, weekends… emergency departments, operating rooms. It also creates a sense of parity about what's important—the patients and families. The business is there to serve the kids and the families, not the other way around.

So, we create a culture that's driven from the perspectives of what's best for children and families and to build it around the needs of doctors and nurses and the clinical imperative. Not that we're not going to be smart about the finances, but that the finances and the business and the operations will support that.

When we do that, we're going to be successful not only in the care, the quality, the safety, the outcomes, but we're going to be successful because our value is going to get recognized. It's up to us to prove it, but the community, the parents, the government and all the stakeholders will recognize the value we bring.

You believe pediatric mental health is the next big frontier in medicine. Why?

What tends to get overlooked is the breadth and depth of mental and behavioral illness with children. Think about the statistic that almost 20 percent of children will have some mental or behavioral health issue and that many of those issues go undiagnosed for significant periods of time. Yet, on the flipside, with early identification and intervention, many of these issues are solvable or correctable.

We need to do more. Are we investing enough in training people? Are there shortages of child psychiatrists and psychologists? Are we doing enough research on the causes? To me, that creates a big opportunity. With the scientific discoveries that are coming along in genetics and drugs and different approaches, we are on the cusp of a lot of potential breakthroughs, but only if we invest, and only if we make it a priority.

What are your thoughts on the health care debate in Washington, D.C.?

It's just part of a longer impression and perception that has been troubling me and troubling many of us in pediatric medicine in children's hospitals—that children and the impact of the legislation is just not as much a part of the conversation as it should be. Not only that, when we're talking about legislation that would cut our nation's investment in children, cut Medicaid programs or cut research funding, when it ought to be the other way around.

We've got to invest more because all of us in pediatric medicine understand the positive effect of covering primary care and preventive services and identifying health issues early with genetics. Also, conducting research and discovering new drugs, therapies, different innovations that save money in the long run can prevent a lot of diseases like diabetes, asthma or mental health issues.

So, to be cutting things at a time when there's so much promise in children's medicine and the impact on kids' and families' lives just doesn't seem wise, because it's just such a good investment to put more into it. I'm really disappointed that we're having a discussion that is going in the other direction.

Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.