Dr. Laura Dawson

Are you ready for the ASTRO annual meeting?

October 15, 2021
by Sean Ruck, Contributing Editor
The American Society for Radiation Oncology's (ASTRO’s) Annual Meeting will be held October 24-27. While the physical venue — Chicago's McCormick Place — should be familiar to those who have attended in the past, it’s not a complete return to normal. This year’s theme is “Embracing Change: Advancing Person-Centered Care,” and the organization is putting its best foot forward in myriad ways to show that’s more than just a tagline. The meeting will be a hybrid, allowing those who want to connect in person to do so, while also providing virtual options for those who can’t or don’t want to physically attend this year.

Change isn’t just about the meeting though. HealthCare Business News spoke with Dr. Laura Dawson, professor of radiation oncology at the University of Toronto, practicing radiation oncologist in the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre’s Radiation Medicine Program and ASTRO president, to learn more about her background and the initiatives ASTRO is taking to embrace change.

HealthCare Business News: Who or what inspired you to follow a career in healthcare?
Dr. Laura Dawson: I was always interested in science and math. My dad was an engineer and my mom was a physician, so I had role models in those fields. I considered a career in engineering, but I ultimately decided I wanted to have more of a direct impact on patients, so medicine was the natural choice.

HCB News: Why did you choose oncology?
LD: Early on in medical school, I realized people with cancer are special and that their disease is complex and interesting to treat. I saw an opportunity to help by improving outcomes for patients who are going through a really challenging time. As oncologists, we aim to improve survival and/or quality of life of patients we help, and we also help them navigate through their cancer journey, providing hope and making it a less stressful experience by providing reliable information in a clear manner to help with decision-making. I realized oncology was my calling, but what was trickier was deciding in medical school which type of oncology I preferred. Radiation oncology is a great fit if you have interests in math and problem-solving and you want to be in direct contact with patients.

HCB News: Can you talk about how your career path led you to where you are today?
LD: As a medical student, I was interested in volunteer work in Indonesia. In order to fund the trip, I worked as an administrative assistant, coincidentally in the radiation department where I work today. The radiation oncologists there encouraged me to pursue my interest in the specialty.

When I returned to medical school, I arranged for electives in radiation oncology, and that was where I fell in love with the specialty. There was no question that it was for me. After graduating, I did a fellowship at the University of Michigan, and I focused on technological advances in radiation oncology. It was a really enjoyable time in my career, where I collaborated with physicists, developed technical innovations and was involved with clinical trials. It was around this time that I started getting active in ASTRO, too.

In Ann Arbor, I developed a clinical and research interest in treating liver cancers. I’ve kept that passion for treating patients with liver cancer throughout my career. When I returned to Canada, I helped to start a stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) program at the University of Toronto, and since that time liver cancer SBRT has been my main clinical and research focus.

HCB News: What is your history with ASTRO?
LD: I've been a member since I completed my residency in the 1990s, and being active with ASTRO has always been important to me. I have attended all of the Annual Meetings except one that was cancelled due to a hurricane, and I've served on and chaired committees, especially those focused on education and the effective use of technology. After becoming more involved in the Annual Meetings , I was elected to the board of directors as Education Council vice-chair, then chair. After that term was over, I took a few years off from the board before returning to run for the leadership track.

HCB News: While the number is increasing, women are still significantly underrepresented in oncology. How can equity be improved in the specialty?
LD: That topic is near and dear to me, and it's part of the reason I pursued the leadership track with ASTRO. I want to be a role model and encourage other female medical students to consider radiation oncology as a specialty. About a third of ASTRO members are women, and I’m surprised whenever I see those numbers. In leadership, for many years there were few women. I’m the fifth female ASTRO president out of more than 50. But after me, Dr. Geraldine Jacobson is incoming president. So, the field is evolving and we’re seeing positive change.

Women in radiation oncology also are becoming much more visible and vocal about their work in the field. For example, #WomenWhoCurie is a popular hashtag on Twitter that you often see next to #radonc, and it's a grassroots creation from this community. We hope that medical students see these tweets from women in radiation oncology and see that we’re proud to be in the field. ASTRO also put together a "Women Who Curie" video with examples of women with interesting careers in radiation oncology.

Improving diversity, equity and inclusion is a priority area for ASTRO, and we have launched multiple efforts on this front. We started a Mentor Match program to connect younger physicians with mentors, and we anticipate that this network will be used widely by female physicians, as well as physicians from underrepresented minority groups, who also are substantially underrepresented in the field. We also held an online social education series this summer, DEI in RO, with expert panels and town halls on issues such as women in leadership, structural racism, access to cancer care and LGBTQ+ issues in radiation oncology.

HCB News: What initiatives top your list for your time as president?
LD: One priority for me is raising the public profile of radiation oncology. Radiation is a highly effective cancer therapy that’s underutilized and probably underrecognized as one of the pillars of oncology care. There is more we can do to bring this message to medical students, other physicians and the public.

Efforts to improve DEI in ASTRO are another priority, both for me and the ASTRO Board. There’s a desperate need to improve diversity in the field and in leadership positions. To that end, we prioritized the formation of a new ASTRO Council that focuses on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), with a vote planned at the Annual Meeting to update the bylaws. I look forward to working with the outstanding DEI team over the upcoming years.

Another key initiative is advocating for fair and stable Medicare reimbursement for radiation therapy. Radiation oncologists currently face $300 million in proposed cuts starting in 2022. If these cuts are finalized, Medicare reimbursement for radiation oncology will have plummeted 25% in the past decade. These cuts would threaten the viability of many community-based practices, jeopardizing patients' ability to get state-of-the-art cancer care close to home. The cuts also are in direct conflict with President Biden’s goals to “end cancer as we know it” and advance health equity. ASTRO is working to activate congressional leaders and the Biden administration to reverse these potentially devastating cuts.

There is much I hope to accomplish in my time on ASTRO's Board, and we are working to address other key challenges facing the specialty, including workforce issues and restrictive prior authorization practices.

HCB News: What are some of the things you’re most looking forward to at this year’s Annual Meeting?
LD:We have seen a positive reaction to holding the meeting in person and have heard from many members that they look forward to attending. ASTRO is working side-by-side with McCormick Place and the city of Chicago to ensure safety is the number one priority, in addition to providing a top-notch scientific meeting that will give attendees the most current information to take back to their clinics and patients. We also will offer a digital experience, DigitalXP, with nearly 50 hours of curated content for those who cannot attend in-person.

The meeting theme — "Embracing Change, Advancing Person-centered Care" — is about bringing meaningful change that will benefit our patients. What innovations are most likely to improve outcomes? How can we improve on what matters to patients, and how can we improve our experience as caregivers? This year, we are fortunate to have patients be part of the faculty, to share their voices.

We have many exciting sessions planned for the meeting. The Presidential Symposium, "Advancing Person-Centered Care Through Innovation," will feature sessions on scientific innovations, digital health, and future possible applications of radiation therapy, as well as a debate on the merits of randomized clinical trials versus real-world data. We have three dynamic keynote speakers to address current issues such as physician burnout and artificial intelligence, and Cancer Breakthrough sessions to spotlight top research from other cancer meetings over the past year. New this year, we have a session on the Science of Hope, and we also have a track specifically for science and education focused on DEI in radiation oncology.

We encourage people to follow the meeting on social media using the hashtag #ASTRO21.