Two days after being named director of the University of Colorado Cancer Center, Richard Schulick, MD, MBA, reflected on the opportunity before him. The most obvious: a five-year $100 million investment by UCHealth, the University of Colorado School of Medicine and philanthropists in a center that already holds a place among the nation’s elite cancer programs.
That kind of hefty financial support invites speculation and pondering of possibilities, especially in the field of cancer care, where new research and clinical discoveries are the rule, not the exception. But Schulick said he’s focused on the fundamentals: improving access to care, recruiting elite faculty, and building a clinical trials infrastructure capable of extending new treatments to more people.
Simply put, the investment aims to benefit those who bear the heaviest burden of disease, Schulick said. “At the heart of everything we do is providing excellent care for patients,” he said. “That also means discovering new cures and teaching the next generation of cancer caregivers. Those three themes are central to our mission, and we won’t deviate from them.”
More resources, more challenges
Schulick said it will require more than words to make it easier for people to get the best possible cancer care. He ticked off what he sees as necessary steps to improving patient access. They include exploring ways of building a “much larger and dedicated cancer center” than the present five-story structure on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and opening new sites around Denver and the state to “bring services and clinical care closer to our patients.”
He readily acknowledged that building a new cancer center will require additional, significant investment from the philanthropic community. But he’s ready to invest his own effort, he added.
“It’s my dream to somehow enable this vision,” Schulick said. “All excellent leaders advocate for their organization, and I believe this is the right thing to do.”
UCHealth President and CEO Elizabeth B. Concordia expressed strong support for Schulick and the Cancer Center.
“The CU Cancer Center is a nationally renowned leader in cancer research, and hundreds of their innovative clinical trials are available at multiple UCHealth locations including our hospitals in northern Colorado, metro Denver and Colorado Springs,” she said.
Building on strengths
His challenging aspirations for the Cancer Center have firm foundations, Schulick maintained. It’s a longtime National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center – the only one in Colorado – a reflection of its excellence in research, advanced treatments, and patient outcomes. Schulick also cites the Cancer Center’s close academic medical center ties with UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, Children’s Hospital Colorado, and the VA Affairs Eastern Colorado Health System, as well as the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, CU Boulder and Colorado State University, as evidence of its current strength and future promise.
“We have top hospitals for care of both adults and children,” Schulick said, referring to top national rankings in US News and World Report for both UCH and Children’s Colorado. “We have relationships with multiple universities. We have the resources to build programs that will deliver substantive success and help us to recruit top talent. We are in one of the best places to live in the United States. We are just at the beginning of bringing the best cancer care to a population that needs us.”
The times demand innovative cancer care, Schulick added. New treatments that focus on the immune system have garnered much attention – including at the CU School of Medicine, which launched the Human Immunology and Immunotherapy Initiative with a $20 million investment and is an active participant in clinical trials of immunotherapies for both adult and pediatric patients – but Schulick said the search extends to finding new drugs and compounds that are safe and effective for varieties of cancer and also considering not only length of life but also quality of life in treating patients.
“If we value one of those without the other, it doesn’t make sense,” Schulick said. “Palliative care, for example, is extremely important. All the things that we do to care for patients have to make sense. That means that aggressive care has to be reconciled with the side effects of care.”
The urgency of addressing these and other complex medical problems increases every day, Schulick said. He pointed to statistics that show more than 1.7 million new cases of cancer in the United States in 2017, with nearly 1,700 people dying from the disease every day. Some 15.5 million Americans in 2017 had a history of cancer.
“It’s the most important problem of our time,” Schulick said. “We’ve gotten so much better at treating other conditions, like heart disease and infections, that people are living longer. If you live long enough, you’re prone to cancer. It’s hard for most of us to name one person who hasn’t been touched in some way by cancer.”
Mix of skills
The breadth of the questions makes it fair to wonder where Schulick will find the time for this new job. He’s already chair of the CU School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery, a position he’s held since 2012, presiding over a period of significant growth. He will continue in that role.
He’s also a practicing surgeon specializing in diseases of the pancreas and liver, including cancer, and has no plans to scale back his time in the operating room.
“That’s a core piece of who I am,” Schulick said. He pointed to photos on his office wall of fellow surgeons and mentors John Cameron, MD, and Sir Murray Brennan, MD, who trained him at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, respectively. Both, he said, instilled in him an essential lesson: don’t abandon the surgical suite for the C-suite. That was evidenced in a line from Cameron’s reply to an email from Schulick telling him of his new position. That’s great, the older surgeon wrote, but keep operating.
In short, Schulick said he sees the roles as complementary rather than conflicting. “A significant portion of our activity in the Department of Surgery is related to cancer,” Schulick said. “It will be my charge in the new position, obviously, to lead the whole spectrum of cancer care in discovery and education. But my specific experience will benefit my ability to lead.”
Downplaying the heavy workload, Schulick quipped, “I’m not the busiest person on this campus. I’m sure Liz Concordia, [University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus chancellor] Don Elliman and [CU School of Medicine dean] John Reilly are busier.”
To keep up with it all, Schulick can also draw on at least two other pieces of his education: the MBA and a bachelor’s degree in engineering. On the business side, he observes that his MBA training is important to balancing the need for innovative medical research, discovery and treatment and fiscal prudence.
As for his engineering studies, Schulick said they taught him that, well, we all are engineers in one way or another, regardless of whether we’re fixing a leaky faucet or helping to forge the future of cancer care.
“We’re all problem-solvers,” he said. “When we’re presented with a problem, we check what’s available as resources to take care of it. That’s what I do all day, in the OR, in administration, in research, in figuring out the best way to teach. I apply the principle all the time in medicine, which is a blend of art and science. We need engineering skills in medicine, but when we take that too far, we have to rely on the art.”