Tackling the Cancer Center

Jan. 17, 2012, 1:00 a.m.
Tackling the Cancer Center
(Courtesy of Douglas Blayney)

To many, Douglas Blayney ’72, the medical director of the Stanford Cancer Center, is a hero. As his daughter used to say when she was younger, “My dad can save the lives of people who smoke cigarettes.”


He can do that and more, adopting a number of leadership roles throughout his career.


Blayney’s position at the Cancer Center has brought him full circle back to the Farm. After completing his undergraduate studies and receiving a degree in electrical engineering at Stanford, he worked in private practice for 17 years as an oncologist and hematologist, and later also served as the medical director at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.


“It was one of the greatest days on Earth when we recruited him from Michigan,” said former Director Irving Weissman M.D. ’65, who currently serves as a senior scientific advisor to the Cancer Center. “He brings major leadership in the field of breast cancer, and more important, professionalism and vision in setting up the structures to do clinical trials efficiently. Blayney is the one person who knows exactly how to do it.”


Blayney’s vision for the Stanford Cancer Center includes delivering complex, coordinated care, and he has already made numerous changes in the first two years of his office. Focusing his efforts on all aspects of patient care as well as patient empowerment, he said that he has already increased patient satisfaction scores and implemented changes to EPIC, the medical center’s electronic medical record system. Now he is working on quantifying the quality of care and measuring patient satisfaction so the Center can more accurately and appropriately provide needed cancer interventions.


Blayney is also dedicated to increasing the efficiency of patient care, especially with the ever-increasing costs of treatment.


“As treatment is targeted to a smaller but better identified segment of the population, it means that the denominator over the cost of development becomes smaller, and the treatment per individual becomes more expensive,” he said. “We are getting into ways of transforming cancer care delivery through reducing waste and ineffective treatments in order to make it more efficient.”


Blayney’s clear and systematic style is perhaps a reflection of both his personality and his studies. Though he entered Stanford knowing that he wanted to be a doctor, he was also drawn to the technical and problem-solving aspects of electrical engineering.


“I studied EE because my father was an electrical engineer, so I grew up with it, was good at it and found success in it,” he said. “I liked its rigorous, systematic approach to problems and understanding the parts of a system and how systems function together.”


His technical background has given him the skills to think rigorously, synthesize problems and communicate effectively, all of which he applies to his medical work, he said.


“Every time I see a patient who has a difficult diagnostic problem, we together decide on the course of action,” he said. “Afterward, I’m always testing that course of action–‘Is there anything I’m missing here? Is there a quantitative way to test the hypothesis of the diagnosis?’”


The challenging, problem-solving nature of oncology was also a factor that lured him to the field.


“I enjoy dealing with cancer because it can affect so many of the body’s different systems,” he said. “It posed a lot of mysteries physically and psychologically, which I enjoyed solving.”


Blayney could see that at the time he entered his medical profession cancer research was becoming more prevalent, which meant that more advanced cancer interventions would be developed. These would need to be tested, and Blayney was enthusiastic about being a part of that testing, he said.


According to Beverly Mitchell, the current director of the Stanford Cancer Institute, Blayney’s passion for improving patient care quality shows through in his work, and his leadership has helped the Cancer Center become a more effective organization.


“He’s played a major role in bringing teams of physicians together in delivering quality patient care,” she said. “He brings a blend of expertise; he leads by example and he’s not confrontational.”


Although “he looks like a linebacker,” Weismann said, and his presence and background command attention, Weismann agreed with Mitchell’s description of Blayney’s amicable personality.


“He doesn’t force people to think his own way,” Weismann said.


While Blayney studied at the Farm, he remembered “mildly quirky people at Stanford whose reason for being here was to be excellent at what they do and transmit that excellence to the next generation.” Back at Stanford, he too reflects the excellence of his own generation.

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