Kettering Health's cancer leader on operational challenges in oncology

Ken Chaij, executive director of Kettering (Ohio) Health's oncology service line, said there are few things that stress him in oncology thanks to an amazing organization and a team that's willing to be creative and work together.

But the one issue in oncology that concerns him most is ensuring there are enough physicians and seats to accommodate all the cancer patients, new and returning, in need of treatment.

Here, Mr. Chaij highlights the operational challenges and success he's seen at Kettering.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: What drew you to oncology?

Ken Chaij: First, the mission of Kettering Health really resonates with me. When I was given the opportunity to work in oncology and help form the service line, I was very interested. Secondly, I was influenced through personal impact from cancer in my family. I have several survivors in my family from the disease and a few who are no longer with us. Those two things combined drove me to serve in oncology.

Q: What cancer study, technology or innovation are you most excited about right now?

KC: I'm most excited about the use of genetics to fight against cancer. It is the standard of care for all blood cancers, and over the next three to five years, I think all cancers will be measured by that standard. It's constantly evolving each week with something new coming out in the realm of genetics and the molecular side of things. 

In terms of technology, I'm excited about MR linear accelerators. The combination of MRI and radiation linear accelerator has only been around for maybe five to 10 years. That is a game changer when it comes to radiation. It allows you to provide a much higher dose of radiation because it's so targeted, and you're sparing all the good tissue you can so a patient can get back to a normal life much more quickly, and they have fewer treatments.

Q: What aspect of your work or the field keeps you up at night?

KC: What I worry about the most is timeliness: Getting people in as quickly as possible to the correct therapy and professionals and treating them as quickly as we can for the best outcomes possible. We do not want people to sit there and go, "Oh, we can't get you in until XYZ date." We need to get them in as quickly as we can. People are living longer with cancer and we see people coming back over and over for more treatment as the disease returns or progresses. Getting them in at the same time that we see new disease patients coming in — and we're seeing them in our market in greater numbers — is why we are constantly working to open up more time, more chairs and have enough physicians to fit everybody. It's very operational, but it is key to being able to provide great service.

Q: What's one thing your hospital/system is doing in cancer care that you're most proud of?

KC: We're treating patients for their cancer, but patients have a lot of other things going on in their life and our team, with local partners, have started to focus on those needs. COVID-19 has brought some of those to the forefront and made them starkly visible to us. Two of the largest issues are transportation and food insecurity. Transportation has always been something that people struggle with, but food is a new one.

We've started to create a safety net for patients in need, and we can now connect them with food banks and transportation services. My team of clinicians has created a voluntary program as a stopgap measure to provide bags of food for the patient and their family for a week or two. It's not a constant thing, but it takes into account their therapy, allergies, easy to cook, and availability of resources like can openers or access to a kitchen for our homeless patients. I'm so proud of Kettering Health, our team and our partners for stepping forward to say, "This isn't really a cancer thing, but it's affecting our cancer patients and it affects their health, outcomes and how they're doing under therapy. So we need to do it."

Q: What's the best leadership advice you've received?

KC: Keep your team focused on your purpose and stretch — not only myself as a leader but my team — beyond what we think we're capable of doing. That involves taking on calculated risks. Be willing to tweak the plan down the road, but take that calculated risk and keep in line with our purpose as it evolves.

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