Dr Otis Brawley Joins Johns Hopkins to Focus on Disparities

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

January 28, 2019

Otis Brawley, MD, an authority on cancer screening and prevention who served for 11 years as chief medical and scientific officer for the American Cancer Society (ACS), has taken the position of Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Oncology and Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Dr Otis Brawley

Brawley will be leading a broad interdisciplinary research effort of cancer health disparities at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, focusing on how to close racial, economic, and social disparities in the prevention, detection, and treatment of cancer in the United States and worldwide.

In addition, he will also direct community outreach programs for underserved populations throughout Maryland as the Kimmel Cancer Center's associate director for community outreach and engagement.

The news of his resignation from the ACS in early November was surprising to many in the oncology community, but Brawley is clearly excited over this next step in his career, calling it a "tremendous opportunity."

Hopkins has one of the leading medical schools and schools of public health in the nation, Brawley explained. "There are amazing people here that I will have the opportunity to work with and collaborate with, and many will now be just down the hall," he told Medscape Medical News. "This is such an opportunity to work with people I have admired for 20 or 30 years. I have had the opportunity to work with some of them in the past and now I get to work with them on a daily basis."

Brawley also views his new position as an opportunity to train the next generation of physicians and researchers in cancer control and prevention.

"One of the things I insisted on in my contract is that I will be teaching undergraduate and graduate students," said Brawley. "And what is really exciting to me is that right now, the most popular undergraduate major at Johns Hopkins is a bachelor's degree in public health."

"I want to teach the epidemiology of cancer and also clinical trial design," he noted. "One of the themes of my entire career and one of the big issues in overcoming the cancer problem is that we have a substantial number of people who do not understand science and who do not understand how to interpret and apply science appropriately."

Cancer Screening and Prevention

At the ACS, Brawley was responsible for promoting the goals of cancer prevention, early detection, and quality treatment through cancer research and education, and he had been an outspoken critic of certain cancer screening guidelines that he believed could lead to potential overtreatment. He also championed efforts to decrease smoking and implement lifestyle programs that could reduce cancer risk.

The Bloomberg Distinguished Professorships (BDPs) were established in 2013 as part of a $350 million investment by Hopkins alumni Michael Bloomberg, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who also served as mayor of New York City from 2002 to 2013. Faculty are chosen for these endowed professorships based on their research, teaching, service, and leadership record, explained William Nelson, MD, PhD, director of the Kimmel Cancer Center.

"These are remarkable people who are equally attractive to different elements across the university that they can then bridge," Nelson said in an interview. "In Otis's case, they were very excited about him in the school of public health because of his long-standing views on cancer prevention, and his analysis of cancer screening — its benefits, its hazards, and achieving a balance. And we were very excited about having him in the school of medicine."

"When you think about it, this mechanism was almost created for someone like him," Nelson told Medscape Medical News.

He also pointed out that Brawley already had a long-standing relationship with Hopkins. They had first contacted him in 2000, but he had a "wonderful opportunity to go to Emory and help build their cancer treatment center," Nelson noted.

Prior to going to Emory in 2001, Brawley worked at the National Cancer Institute's division of cancer prevention. "And when he was still at the National Cancer Institute and close by, we used to have him come over and give a 'semi-celebrity' lecture to medical students," said Nelson. "He always got rave reviews and generated excitement in the students. I don't know if he's aware of how good a teacher he is, but he is going to now have that opportunity to work with students here."

"I don't know if he's aware of how good a teacher he is." Dr William Nelson

Brawley will have the opportunity to teach across a wide range of students at all levels — undergraduate students in public health, grad students in epidemiology, oncology fellows, etc. "This is exactly the right time and the right place for him to be," Nelson said.

Moving to the Next Phase

There has been a great deal of speculation as to why Brawley resigned his position at the ACS. According to an article in the New York Times, he was dismayed "over some commercial partnerships" that the society had made recently.

The New York Times article quoted "people close to him," and not Brawley himself, as saying that his departure was "largely attributed to his dismay over some commercial partnerships, including with Herbalife International, the controversial supplements company." Others said that "he had become uncomfortable with the society's growing reliance on donations from businesses with questionable health credentials that he and others suspect are seeking to burnish their images."

"I have never publicly discussed all of my reasons for leaving," Brawley said. "I have a tremendous opportunity to move to the next phase of my career."

He explained that "I've read a lot about why I left, and I don't know who's talking to who,” referring to the New York Times article.

"I've only spoken with people at the ACS about ACS issues," Brawley emphasized. "I have tremendous respect for the mission of the ACS and tremendous love and affection for everyone who has helped me personally and professionally over the years."

Leaving the ACS is for Brawley another step forward in a long career. "I chose to go to Emory when there was an excellent opportunity to help them build a comprehensive cancer center," he said. "Then I left to go to the ACS for another challenge, and I am proud of what I did over the 11.5 years that I was there. And now it is time for new opportunities and challenges."

Real Prevention and Setting Policy

Brawley pointed out that Hopkins is giving him tremendous leeway and freedom and "they would be happy to let me continue the same work that I did at the ACS."

As Baltimore is close to Washington, DC, he feels that will help in influencing policy at the federal level. "Cancer control as a [that] discipline began in the 1970s, and in the 1980s, we saw the new discipline of cancer prevention and control," he said. "It has developed so that we can now apply what we have learned over the last 40 years."

It's no longer just smoking as the leading cause of cancer, he emphasized, and there is much that can be done to move the medical dialog beyond smoking. "Excess calorie intake, lack of exercise, and obesity is the leading cause of cancer in many communities today," Brawley said. "It's a three-legged stool, but so many people think it's still only smoking."

Cancer prevention and disparities in care are "areas that need attention," he said. "We have been spending so much time on screening and treatment, and many people really don't understand how complicated screening is."

A native of Detroit, Michigan, Brawley is a graduate of the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. He completed an internal medicine residency at the University Hospitals of Cleveland, Case-Western Reserve University, and a fellowship in medical oncology at the National Cancer Institute.

Brawley is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and recently received the Martin D. Abeloff Award for Excellence in Public Health and Cancer Control from the Maryland State Council of Cancer Control. He is also a fellow of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, a fellow of the American College of Epidemiology, and one of fewer than 1,600 physicians to be named a master of the American College of Physicians in its more than 100-year history. Brawley is also an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine.

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