Medical oncologist named as new head of Cancer Australia

By Mardi Chapman

21 Mar 2019

Professor Dorothy Keefe

Professor Dorothy Keefe

South Australian medical oncologist Professor Dorothy Keefe has been announced as the incoming CEO of Cancer Australia.

Professor Keefe will wind down her clinical practice and move to Sydney for the new position which will take effect from July, when Dr Helen Zorbas steps down after her nine years in the job.

Speaking to the limbic Professor Keefe said while she hadn’t been looking for a new role, she soon realised it was a perfect fit for her skill set and experience.

“Throughout my career, I’ve always had an interest in leadership and in stakeholder engagement and in making the cancer journey as good as it can be.”

“This [Cancer Australia] role works through running the agency but also influencing the cancer landscape and the cancer conversations across the country because it has a very big stakeholder engagement role and a very big advisory role to the department and to the government.”

“It operates by influence and Helen has always been an amazing exponent of that.”

Professor Keefe said her research interests were initially in supportive care in cancer, including how to prevent and manage gut toxicities from treatment.

“So that brings you into the whole area of trying to make the cancer journey as good as you possibly can and as a clinician to stop thinking of the single person in front of you and start thinking about the impact on the whole population affected by cancer. I think that is a natural segue into health reform and population health cancer outcomes.”

“This is one of those occasions where I am taking over as the CEO of an organisation that is highly functional and has a wonderful CEO in place. This is not an occasion where there is a problem.”

“Helen Zorbas has been absolutely fantastic and is quite an act to follow so I am very honoured to have been appointed to follow when she steps out in July.”

“It is really important that I don’t change anything for the sake of change. The issue is we have a highly functioning very important government entity which is leading fantastic work in cancer across the country.”

She said Cancer Australia was doing wonderful work in areas of need and relevance through the Priority-driven Collaborative Cancer Research Scheme.

“The Brain Cancer Mission is absolutely wonderful and it is really important that work continues. The work in rare cancers is really important and the work in paediatric cancers is really important.”

“There are some fantastic data projects going on there that are really enhancing our ability to monitor what we are doing in cancer in Australia and enable us to build on that as a platform for improving outcomes.”

“For example, there is a new Cancer Australia website resource on the National Cancer Control Indicators, which is the first time for Australia where we have been able to get data across the whole country to enable us to see how we are doing.”

“The other initiative which is a world first, and I can take zero credit for this, is the stage of cancer at diagnosis and recurrence. Developing an optimal care pathway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is also an important piece of work.”

“So it’s really important that I support the ongoing success of those projects. But as a new CEO, it then gives me an opportunity to think about where else or what else could be done.”

Addressing inequities 

She said no patient with cancer was any more or any less important than another.

“Everybody affected by cancer deserves the best outcomes so we need to somehow make sure that is happening.”

“The problems that we have would be that there is variability in outcomes depending on where you come from. These things are not always the most exciting to talk about but the disparities between our Indigenous population and our non-Indigenous populations are something that we really have to deal with as well as the disparities based on how far you live from a capital city.”

“As with everything in health, if you keep reducing it down it comes to the social determinants of health so we do have to really continue to concentrate on this.”

Professor Keefe said we still had to keep striving in all areas including the cancers for which we have screening programs.

“Not everyone who is eligible for screening gets screened and that is something we have to work on. We know what we need to do and timeframes in which we have to do it but we are not always able to meet our own expectations as practitioners.”

“If you look along those optimal care pathways where we talk about prevention and early detection, diagnosis and staging, treatment and follow-up, and survivorship care, I would hazard a guess that there is no point along the path at which we are perfect across the country. We need to continuously improve all those areas.”

She acknowledged that funding was a perennial issue in cancer care but that Australia was fortunate to have such a rigorous and robust regulatory system for medicines.

“We have a responsibility to make sure we don’t spend every dollar in healthcare on cancer but that we do spend money where we should. It’s a very difficult balancing act but we are supported by these wonderful people on the PBAC who do a huge amount of very hard work to ensure that they make the right decisions around which drugs are and aren’t cost effective for the benefit of the community.”

“It’s very difficult as an oncologist to resist the temptation of saying ‘my patient needs this drug and I don’t care how much it costs’. You have to think about the impact of that expenditure on the rest of the public health system.”

“And given we have amongst the best cancer outcomes in the world, I reckon we are getting it pretty well right.”

Professor Keefe is currently Professor of Cancer Medicine at the University of Adelaide, a Senior Medical Oncologist at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and the Interim Medical Director of the SA Cancer Service.

She has been a member of the Cancer Australia Advisory Council since 2015 and is also a member of the National Cancer Expert Reference Group (NCERG) of the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council, Board member of Breast Cancer Network Australia and Board member and past president of the Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer (MASCC).

In 2013 Professor Keefe was awarded the Public Service Medal for her outstanding service in the areas of public health, medical research and oncology.

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