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Dr. Peter Pisters, a native of St. Catharines, Ont., says he’s “overjoyed about coming back to Canada” to serve as the new President and CEO of UHN. (Photo: UHN)
Dr. Peter Pisters is home. At last.
Monday marks the first day in the office for the new President and CEO of UHN. It’s also the culmination of a three-decade-long journey by the St. Catharines, Ont. native to return home to Canada to work.
Following medical school at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., where he met and married his wife, Katherine, after third year, the couple moved to the United States to pursue their post-graduate studies, largely because at the time no surgical oncology training programs existed in Canada.
Now, after a successful career as a cancer surgeon, researcher, professor and hospital administrator, the past 20 years of it in Houston at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Dr. Pisters is back.
“Our master plan was to go to the States to get the training we were seeking and then come back,” Dr. Pisters says. “Finally, that plan is now being executed. We’re overjoyed about coming back to Canada.
“It’s like a dream come true.”
Dr. Pisters, who was appointed President and CEO in August and assumed the role on Jan. 1, made three trips to UHN over the summer and fall to meet with staff and begin to get to know the place. Through all the tours, discussions and meetings, he was struck by the passion employees have for their jobs.
“There’s so much passion in the organization for the work that people do for the patients, the research they carry out and the critical role in education that they hold,” Dr. Pisters says. “When I asked people what they liked about their work, invariably they would respond by talking about their team, the feedback they get from the patients they serve, and how much they love the team that they’re on.
“It’s a sign of really profound organizational health when you see people who are so happy, so enthused, so energized by the work that they’re doing.”
Dr. Pisters completed his internship and residency training in New York City at New York University Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital from 1985 to 1992, during which he joined the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, also in New York City, for a two-year laboratory research fellowship. From 1992 to 1994, he returned to Sloan Kettering for fellowship training in surgical oncology, with his final year as Chief Administrative Fellow in the Department of Surgical Oncology. He also holds a M.Sc. in Health Care Management from Harvard University.
Despite spending his career to this point in the U.S., Dr. Pisters says as a Canadian he 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.”
Dr. Pisters says his previous visits to UHN have left him with a belief that employees feel both a great privilege and a tremendous obligation to uphold the values on which the organization is based.
“There’s a recognition that Canadians all over the country are counting on us,” Dr. Pisters says. “They’re counting on us to deliver high-quality care, to continue to deliver a tradition of world firsts, and to move the health-care delivery system forward through discovery, through innovation, and through transformational efforts to realign that system.”
Dr. Pisters remembers coming to Toronto – “the big city” – as a teenager to watch the Blue Jays and occasional Leafs games, shop or catch concerts down at The Ex. There have been regular annual visits with the Pisters’ three children to visit relatives and go to the family cottage.
Dr. Pisters returns both older and wiser but perhaps no less wide-eyed than on those trips as a teenager. He now reflects on the “incredible potential” of UHN as an organization, particularly given its unique position as part of the only medical school and life sciences enterprise in the third most populous city in Canada or the U.S.
“We have a collection of great teaching hospitals aggregated immediately adjacent to the university,” Dr. Pisters notes. “That creates a critical mass in location and focuses attention on health sciences and life sciences research efforts, and you just don’t see that in large cities in the U.S.
“That creates unique advantages that can be leveraged over time.”
Time is something Dr. Pisters will have in ample supply from the outset at UHN. His wife, Dr. Katherine Pisters, a thoracic medical oncologist at MD Anderson in Houston, will stay in Texas until Meghan, the youngest of their three children, finishes high school over the next 18 months.
“This will allow Meghan to be in the best possible situation overall academically and personally,” Dr. Pisters says. “And, it will allow me to dive into the job head first without trying to manage a house and family issues immediately. So, that’s our master plan.”
Annually, when the family came to Ontario to visit relatives or go to the cottage, the kids would often say: “Why don’t we move here?” Dr. Pisters recalls. He and his wife, a native of London, Ont., would smile and think: “One day.”
“We’re finally able to do that now,” says Dr. Pisters, recalling that at a family meeting earlier this year to discuss the opportunity at UHN, all the kids – the eldest, Kevin, attends Rice University in Houston, and middle child Erin, goes to Washington University in St. Louis – “were 100 per cent behind this move.”
Dr. Pisters uses a clinical metaphor when he discusses how he will approach his early days at UHN.
“You have to start not with the treatment but with the history and physical,” he says. “That would involve a detailed history and a very careful physical that helps me develop a deep understanding of the patient and the issues. Once you’ve done that, you’re in a better position to consider treatment options and how you’re going to deliver that treatment.”
The initial months on the job will be spent learning about the organization, Dr. Pisters says.
“I know there are things going on at UHN that are fantastic that I don’t even know about,” he says. “And, I don’t suppose we should develop a vision or a strategy without knowing about those things.”
Dr. Pisters says the timing for taking on this new role at UHN “couldn’t be better” both personally and professionally. Not only is he young enough “to have substantial impact working with a great team in a fantastic organization,” but, he adds, the evolution of health care delivery, transformational changes in science and medicine, and financial pressures make it a dynamic time in the sector.
“I think we’re at an incredible inflection point right now,” Dr. Pisters says. “And, I believe that amazing things are going to happen in the next 10 years.”