Canadian health-care leader to be next MD Anderson president

AUSTIN – University of Texas System regents on Friday tapped Dr. Peter Pisters, a surgeon and administrator who spent 20 years at MD Anderson Cancer Center before leaving three years ago to head the pre-eminent academic health system in his native Canada, as the next president of the elite Houston hospital.

The regents voted unanimously to select Pisters, president of University Health Network in Ontario, a system of four major hospitals affiliated with the University of Toronto and funded by the government under a single-payer model. He was chosen from among four finalists regents interviewed behind closed doors.


“MD Anderson needs steady leadership, and Dr. Pisters will provide that,” Paul Foster, chairman of the regents, said after the vote. “He has a great demeanor and great vision. He knows where’s he’s going and where he’ll take the institution.”

The regents’ voted Pisters the “sole finalist” for the MD Anderson presidency. Under state law, the selection cannot be finalized for at least 21 days.

Pisters, 56, was not available for comment after his selection, having left for the airport while regents deliberated. He tweeted Friday evening that “I am humbled, honoured, and excited to be named sole finalist for President of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.”

At MD Anderson, Pisters most recently was vice president of the institution’s regional care system. He came to the cancer center in 1994, from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, as an instructor in the department of surgical oncology and rose up the ranks to become clinical consultant for its Center for Global Oncology and then medical director of its regional care centers.



Photo: University Health Network

Peter Pisters, a finalist for the job of president of MD Anderson, is currently is president and CEO of University Health Network in Toronto.

Peter Pisters, a finalist for the job of president of MD Anderson,…

He will be tasked with bringing MD Anderson out of fiscal and cultural crises and navigating the complexities of a changing health care landscape. He succeeds Dr. Ronald DePinho, who resigned in March after years of tumult and more recently mounting financial losses that led to the slashing of roughly 1,000 jobs.

MD Anderson’s interim president, Dr. Marshall Hicks, called the selection of Pisters “an important milestone in the institution’s 76-year history.”

“We’ve worked diligently and strategically in past months to create the strongest institution possible for our next leader,” Hicks wrote in an internal email. “We look forward to welcoming Dr. Pisters back to MD Anderson and working closely together to continue our momentum in Making Cancer History,” a reference to the hospital’s marketing slogan.

‘Dark horse’ selection

The selection was described as a surprise by MD Anderson insiders and national academic leaders. Pisters’ name was not on lists of rumored candidates that circulated locally and nationally, said sources in both worlds, a number of whom used the term “dark horse.”

The selection nevertheless received initial positive reviews from many observers, all of whom said Pisters is well regarded at MD Anderson and in cancer care and research circles. One described Pisters as hardworking and non-glitzy, “seemingly a 180-degree change from DePinho.” A number of others using similar language said he may just be the right person for the job.

“I think he’s an inspired choice,” said Dr. Larry Temple, president of the Temple University Health System in Philadelphia and former president of the UT Health Science Center in Houston. “Pisters’ experience running a huge system, with multiple hospitals with a lot of moving parts, will serve him well at MD Anderson, where he obviously knows the turf. I think he’ll definitely be a stabilizing influence.”

Leonard Zwelling, a retired former MD Anderson vice president and frequent critic, wrote in his MD Anderson-focused blog that Pisters is “an excellent choice” whose experience in Canada “suggests he is more than capable of hitting the ground running at an institution he knows well.”

Dr. Ray Greenberg, the system’s executive vice chancellor for health affairs and the chair of the search committee, praised Pisters’ experience in the clinic – his surgical specialty is pancreatic cancer and soft-tissue sarcomas – and his style of leadership. He said the latter resonated with regents and should go over well at MD Anderson, where many faculty chafed at what they perceived as top-down decision making under DePinho.

“Dr. Pisters is very humble, a true public servant,” said Greenberg. “He’s accomplished but he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve.”

Greenberg added that “there’s no question his experience heading University Health Network in Canada was a big plus in today’s changing health care environment.” He said MD Anderson should particularly benefit from Pisters’ ability to “compare and contrast the American and Canadian health care systems.”

43 candidates on list

He is an enthusiast for universal health care, according to a 2014 article in a UHN internal publication.

“Pisters is immensely proud of ‘one of the most magnificent social contracts in the world, the right for universal health care at the primary level and for sophisticated services, and that we have buy-in across all segments of Canadian society,’ ” the article said.

Pisters is a native of St. Catharines, Ontario, who came to the United States after medical school at the University of Western Ontario because no surgical oncology training programs existed in Canada at the time. He trained in general surgery at New York University and in surgical oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

The search committee considered 43 candidates before winnowing its list down to Pisters and three other finalists, all in roughly two months, which a number of academic observers called the fastest they had ever seen. Greenberg said the committee was “impatient to identify top candidates as fast as possible, not wanting the cancer center to hang in limbo waiting for someone to be named.”

Greenberg said no timetable has yet been determined, but he hopes Pisters can start by the end of the year.

Pisters’ wife is a thoracic medical oncologist who also served on the faculty at MD Anderson. The couple have three grown children, the youngest still in college.

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