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Walter J. Curran, M.D.: 'I believe that Piedmont can be one of the best community-based providers of cancer care in the country – period.'

Atlanta, Ga. (May 7, 2024) — Piedmont hired Walter J.  (Wally) Curran Jr., M.D.,an internationally-renowned oncology leader and former executive director of Georgia’s first and only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center, to lead Piedmont Oncology Institute.

Dr. Curran has authored or co-authored more than 800 abstracts and scholarly papers, as well as numerous presentations, reviews and book chapters. He has been chairman or co-chairman of more than 40 clinical trials and a reviewer for 12 national/international journals. The Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research listed Dr. Curran among the top 20 principal investigators in terms of overall National Institutes of Health funding in 2012 and 2013. He is considered an international expert in the management of patients with locally advanced lung cancer or malignant brain tumors.

Now that he is several months into the job, he participated in a Q&A to discuss his vision for the program.

Q: You were a school teacher before you went to medical school. What about that experience has carried over into your current job?

A: When I arrived as a freshman at Dartmouth College, my freshman advisor asked about my career goals. I said that I wanted to become a physician and that I planned to teach and coach track for a few years first. He told me that was a ridiculous idea but if I was going to do that, here is a possible curriculum. I first taught in a parochial school in New Haven, CT, and then in public school systems in LaGrange, Georgia, and outside of Boston, after which I enrolled at Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. I coached track all along the way and loved the opportunity to support young people during those challenging middle school years. I taught whatever subject I was assigned, and this included science, math, religion, and history. I probably learned more from my students than they learned from me. Being a middle school teacher, in my view, can prepare one for the challenges of any subsequent profession.

My first year teaching was probably my most difficult career year. I know that however I now perform in leadership roles relates to what I learned as a teacher. My LaGrange teaching years came three years after the racial integration of its public-school system. I taught in what was the historically black high school, and none of the teachers and students had been in racially-integrated schools, colleges, or programs until then. We had a great faculty and programs there, and we as a school community were very proud of what we accomplished both socially and educationally.


Q: What made you want to be a radiation oncologist?

A: I wanted to be in cancer care and research, and I needed to select a subspecialty. I considered pediatric oncology but after a medical student rotation at Harvard’s Joint Center for Radiation Oncology, I knew this was the field for me. I was very impressed by the dedication, breadth of knowledge, and expertise of the faculty and staff there. This was one of my better decisions I ever made – to influence patient care and really build on my strengths and interests to benefit patients. After medical school, I trained in the University of Pennsylvania residency program and was on the faculty there for eight years, after which I joined Thomas Jefferson University as Chairman of Radiation Oncology.


Q: What attracted you to taking this position?

A: I knew Piedmont from being in Atlanta and in Georgia for a number of years, and I knew many Piedmont cancer providers and the scope of Piedmont care. I was intrigued at how Piedmont had expanded its services across the state, and I viewed this role as an opportunity to support statewide cancer care. Having been in LaGrange during my teaching and in Augusta during med school and having served Georgia in my time at Emory made the opportunity to elevate and integrate cancer care across a statewide health system very exciting.

There are few large statewide health systems in this country. Some of the best work in cancer care and innovation is now happening within large nonacademic health systems, particularly when there’s a system commitment to integrated cancer care. I can think of five such systems where this exists, and the impact both locally and nationally, can be tremendous. Piedmont is new to this opportunity, and the idea of strengthening the underlying Piedmont cancer care programs is a terrific opportunity.


Q: What is your vision for Piedmont?

A: I believe that Piedmont can be one of the best community-based providers of cancer care in the country – period.

This can be accomplished by hiring and retaining exceptional professionals as providers and  administrators and in other roles. This work will also rely on leveraging new partnerships. A year from now, I want us to have 15 or more significant partnerships with other health systems: pharmaceutical and technology companies, foundations, and  academic centers  -- any group who can materially strengthen our care of cancer patients.

Cancer care is complicated and our resources need to be organized in recognition of this reality. This can in part be addressed by leveraging relationships, strengthening and energizing our workforce, and just being very special in every way we can in patient care.

What is exceptional cancer care? To me, exceptional cancer care happens when a newly-diagnosed cancer patient is seen by professionals who understand his or her new emotional burden and are relentlessly professional and efficient at providing best care. Having smart and resourceful people who explore every opportunity for every patient is a must, as is seizing any opportunity to offer clinical research participation. It also involves having resources such as our Thomas F. Chapman Cancer Wellness Program to support people through this difficult process


Q: Is it hard to create those partnerships?

A: Not really, we are a unique organization. Piedmont physicians cared for over 13,500 new cancer patients in 2022. Our hospitals have a unique mix of cancer patients from rural, urban, and suburban backgrounds and span much of our state. Our doctors are open and willing to partner on new opportunities that can help their patients.

Partnerships with our communities are also critical and with our patients and their families and with foundations and other groups who can support our vision. There is no outstanding cancer center in the country that doesn’t have strong local philanthropic support for its mission. For Piedmont to achieve our vision, we need such support.

The Piedmont primary care network is exceptional and will be a great partner for Piedmont Oncology. We will be fulfilling our mission as a cancer program when we support these doctors in cancer screening and in cancer prevention, especially in a manner which does not add an increased work burden. This provides an opportunity for these physicians  to do their very best life’s work!


Q: What should people reading this know about the Piedmont Oncology Institute?

A: Piedmont Oncology is built on an extraordinary group of providers who provide cancer care at Piedmont. It’s a very strong framework. From that framework, people will see more integrated and integrating cancer programs over the next few years. This institute is built on the principle that we’ll be stronger foes against cancer working together than working independently.


Q: Piedmont recently signed an agreement with an organization named TGen to enhance the research it can provide. What does this mean for Piedmont’s population of cancer patients?

A: TGen has been a great organization in developing innovative early phase cancer clinical trials both in sites in Arizona and more broadly. We’re early on in the relationship. We believe that this partnership will provide new types of therapies to people who come to Piedmont for cancer care. And it’s one of several relationships that we will utilize to strengthen the portfolio of cancer clinical trials available for our patients.

The way I view cancer research is fairly simple. If a type and stage of cancer is usually curable, then research projects should focus on reducing the cost and burden of care while maintaining high survival rates. If a type of cancer is rarely cured, then we should find new ways to provide care and perhaps new ways to understand this malignancy. This greater insight can often be at the molecular level, and we should also look creatively at new ways to approach such difficult types of cancer.

Research often then involves therapy reduction which we’re already successful done in a very systematic manner and therapy realignment when cure is infrequent. We’ll be looking at both of those approaches with our TGen partnership.


Q: I understand you’re working on getting your medical staff privileges. What kinds of patients do you expect to work with and what do you see as your mix of patient care administrative duties?

A: I’ve cared for patients throughout my career whether I had administrative responsibilities or not. I typically see patients with tumors of the brain or tumors of the lung. Those are the two areas where I have focused my care and my research work. I’ll see patients along with my colleagues, and I’ll do it in a way that just strengthens my ability to support them administratively.


Q: What else should people know about you and your job at Piedmont?

A: I’m just honored and excited to be here. I feel like It’s a privilege to be part of great team.

A senior colleague of mine was asked, “Are you thinking of retiring?” He said, “Why would I retire now when we finally have so many effective therapies?”

I feel the same way. Every year, not only are we finding more effective therapies, but we’re learning more about difficult-to-understand cancers. There are discoveries and advances in cancer knowledge and cancer care that we could not have anticipated three or four years ago, let alone 10 years ago. It’s energizing to think about how to apply these breakthroughs and make them available across our system.


Q: Where is the cutting-edge research coming from?

A: There’s two main types of cancer research. There’s laboratory research, which is often based on promising results that are looked more deeply at the molecular or cellular level. There is also clinical research, in which Piedmont has a tremendous opportunity to participate. Enrollment across all of Piedmont Oncology cares for a more representative and diverse group of patients in terms of age, lifestyle, race, and other social determinants of health than most health systems. These features make Piedmont  a very attractive partner for many research organizations. These research organizations are organizations with which that many of our doctors already partner.

Q: Anything else you would like to let us know?

Despite the challenges of cancer care, our hardworking Piedmont Oncology teams experience true and unmitigated joy in what they do. We now regularly assist a patient with a difficult problem, with a difficult-to-treat cancer, and see that patient win his or her battle. Our physicians and staff share the joy of that moment with the patient and family on a daily basis across our system!!

Piedmont Oncology is all about increasing that feeling of joy across our system!!


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