Dr. Geraldine Jacobson

Are you ready for radiation oncology's big event?

October 10, 2022
by Gus Iversen, Editor in Chief
With the annual ASTRO meeting fast approaching, HealthCare Business News sat down with the organization’s president, Dr. Geraldine Jacobson, to learn more about her background in radiation oncology. We also discussed the upcoming meeting, and what attendees can expect when they arrive at the Harry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio.

HCB News: Who or what inspired you to follow a career in healthcare?
Dr. Geraldine Jacobson: After college, I travelled around the world and was working overseas when I decided I needed to select a profession. I came up with three criteria: my capacity to pursue the career (this excluded ballet and space travel), potential career satisfaction, and the social value of the profession.

After a visit with a female doctor, I realized that medicine was a career possibility. I had never met a female doctor before, and this experience has convinced me of the importance of diverse role models.

HCB News: Why did you choose oncology/radiation oncology?
GJ: During my clinical rotations, I found working with oncology patients especially satisfying. One day, a radiation oncology resident introduced herself to me after a tumor board. When she explained the field and how she worked with patients, I knew the specialty was a fit for me.

During my pre-med coursework, I found that I enjoyed calculus and physics. They were elegant and logical; if you followed the right process, you got the right answer. When I learned about radiation oncology — an oncology field that included physics — I was interested immediately.

HCB News: How did your career path lead you to where you are today?
GJ: My career path has been varied and has given me opportunities to practice radiation oncology in diverse settings.

My early mentors were excellent role models in their commitment to patient care and engagement in clinical trials. During my training I also had opportunities to do a rotation at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto and to visit radiation oncology centers in China. These experiences were the beginning of my lifelong interest in global oncology.

Since residency, I have worked in a variety of practice types, including academic medical centers and private practice, as well as in rural clinics.

I spent nine years at the University of Iowa, eventually becoming associate chair. I then took a position as founding chair at West Virginia University to build a new radiation oncology department. This experience provided me with deeper insight into the challenges of rural practice for both patients and providers. A top priority for my time as ASTRO Board Chair is to promote the specialty of radiation oncology for all practice settings, so that we can meet patients where they are.

HCB News: How did you first become involved with ASTRO?
GJ: I went to my first ASTRO meeting while still a resident, and I joined ASTRO as soon as I was board-certified.

My active involvement in ASTRO dates to 2004, when an e-mail popped up about the first ASTRO Advocacy Day. After that experience, it was obvious to me that our efforts in D.C. have an impact on our specialty and our daily practice in the clinic. Over time, I became more involved with government relations and other ASTRO committees, and eventually I was elected to the board of directors.

I have continued my involvement with ASTRO because I have felt, as a practicing radiation oncologist, that the society offers support in many different realms: education, health policy, guidelines, promoting science and advocacy.

HCB News: What initiatives top your list for your time as chair of the ASTRO Board?
GJ: My overall goal is to raise the profile of radiation oncology. Our specialty is an important pillar of cancer care, and it provides precise high-value treatment for curative intent and palliation. Most people with cancer will receive radiation treatment at least once during their disease course.

I will continue our initiative to promote diversity and inclusion in our society and specialty. ASTRO members voted to create a Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Council, with representation on the board of directors, so that we can include this focus throughout our society’s activities.

We also want to promote our younger members and give them a stronger voice in ASTRO. Our board of directors has created an Early Career Committee to support this group of important stakeholders, who will be creating the future of our specialty.

As a society we need to extend our global collaboration and involvement in global oncology policy, and we will announce an exciting international radiation oncology effort at our annual meeting.

Finally, we're immensely proud of the care and value we deliver as radiation oncologists. There is a disconnect, however, between decreasing reimbursement for radiation therapy and the increasing quality of the care we provide to our patients. On the most fundamental level, we can't treat our patients to the best of our ability if we're not reimbursed fairly. We will continue our work in Washington to secure fair reimbursement for our doctors and practices.

HCB News: What ways does the pandemic continue to impact oncology?
GJ: We could see the immediate impact of a crisis promoting change. Health systems implemented telemedicine almost overnight. This required changes in payment policy, investment in technology and rapid and widespread implementation of a technology that was not regularly used by the vast majority of doctors. Telemedicine is now here to stay and will become the norm in many specialties.

Specific to radiation oncology, the pandemic promoted the ongoing trend to provide shorter courses of treatment, when doing so did not adversely affect patient outcomes. This trend is likely to have a continuing impact on patterns of care in our field.

Early in the pandemic, we could see the burdens of disease and hospitalization were greater for underrepresented minority communities. This stark reality also highlighted systemic inequities that exist for access and care in the United States. We now see an invigorated focus across the health care system to address these disparities and make high-quality care accessible to all.

We also are seeing the downstream effects of delays in screening and physician visits during the pandemic. Most alarmingly, post-pandemic restrictions, we are seeing more patients presenting with more advanced cancers.

And finally, the pandemic itself was enormously stressful on the healthcare workforce, causing healthcare professionals at all levels to leave the field. These shifts will likely have a permanent impact on hospital and clinic staffing.

HCB News: What are some of the events or sessions you're most looking forward to at this year's Annual Meeting?
GJ: I’m looking forward to an exciting meeting. For the Presidential Symposium, the theme — Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Emotional Intelligence (EI) — gives us the scope to explore different ideas. The AI sessions will address how we can apply these tools in the radiation oncology clinic to improve the treatment process, as well as how we can harness AI to increase access to care and make clinical trials more diverse. Another session will look at the science of radiation toxicity and techniques to mitigate side effects for our patients. The final session will focus on doctors and patients as humans and our capacity to care for our patients in ways that can’t be achieved by a computer or an algorithm.

We have great keynote speakers. Sociologist Dr. Ruha Benjamin will discuss the potential for discrimination being ingrained in algorithms in medicine and other areas of society. Dr. Richard Deming, a private practice radiation oncologist and expert in active cancer survivorship, will talk about living a meaningful life “above and beyond cancer.”

As always, our scientific sessions, especially our Plenary and Clinical Trials Sessions, will present major advances in radiation oncology research from the past year. In addition, we will cover timely topics such as cybersecurity, the carbon footprint of radiation oncology and providing oncology care in Ukraine during conflict.

One change is that we’re introducing “Attend Your Way” registration. Attendees can choose between the in-person meeting or a virtual meeting that includes — for the first time — live-streaming of the in-person scientific and education sessions. Both options also include access to recordings of the entire meeting at no extra charge, which is another first.

Altogether, it’s going to be a meeting with a slightly different vibe, which will be exciting.

HCB News: Can you tell us some of the topics you expect ASTRO attendees to be talking about?
GJ: There will be a lot to talk about — science, innovative technology, patient care, clinical trial results and the new meeting format.

We expect more attendees at our second in-person meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic. The meeting also should provide an opportunity for our members to talk with vendors about new products and services in the field.

Ultimately, I'm often surprised by what people talk about at the Annual Meeting, and I expect to be surprised again this year. I look forward to listening.

HCB News: What is some of the best advice you've ever received?
GJ: The best advice was from my father, in response to something I heard at school: “You don’t have to believe everything people tell you; think for yourself!”