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Management Practices Help Health Care Executive Deal With Cancer

Conquest - Fall 2009

By Bill Byron

That morning in mid-July of 2008 was of no particular significance to Peter Fine. He got up, got ready for work and made it into his office at Banner Health, headquartered in Phoenix, at his customary time. Of course, there was that little matter of a small lump that he felt near his throat when he was shaving. It nagged at him until later that day when he talked to his doctor about it.

Peter Fine

Fine’s doctor told him that “just to be sure,” he should have a CT scan. The scan revealed diseased tissue; two biopsies followed. Within a week the diagnosis came back — cancer. Specifically, it was a squamous cell carcinoma primarily located at the base of his tongue. Fortunately, it was in the early stages.

“People who know me know that I am very decisive, which is why I didn’t wait to talk to my doctor,” he says. “What I felt was abnormal. I wanted it checked out immediately, and I’m glad that I did.”

Fine contacted M. D. Anderson. Coincidentally, the health system for which he serves as president and chief executive officer, Banner Health, was deep into nearly 15 months of discussions with M. D. Anderson about joining together to create a cancer center in the Phoenix area.

“I had a pretty good understanding about the capabilities at M. D. Anderson, but, until I started my treatment, I had no idea how amazing this institution really was,” Fine states. “I’m extremely proud and pleased, as well, that M. D. Anderson chose to join with Banner Health to build the M. D. Anderson Banner Cancer Center in the Phoenix area.”

The ‘select’ club

With the support of his local physicians, he began a treatment regimen at
M. D. Anderson that spanned a five-month period, from late July to mid-December of 2008. The first part of his treatment was aggressive chemotherapy followed by six weeks of highly targeted radiation therapy.

“There’s a lot of emphasis and priority in the health care industry on the patient experience, and, with 32 years of experience in health care, I know a great patient experience when I see it,” he says. “At M. D. Anderson, from the receptionists at desks, to nurses, to technicians, to physicians — they all treat patients with the utmost respect and dignity. They’re outstanding and are dedicated to delivering the best experience to patients.”

Fine joined the select club of people who understand the challenges of cancer treatment from a deeply personal perspective. Supporting him through his treatments was his family, especially his wife Rebecca, and a concerned network of friends and colleagues. He also had another important and effective ally — more than 30 years of management success that he put to good use.

Visibility, credibility, trust

“During my treatment I heavily relied on three management practices that were taught to me by mentors I have had in the course of my career,” Fine reveals.

Early in his career, he worked as an assistant administrator in an Indiana hospital where the CEO understood the phrase “visibility breeds credibility, credibility breeds trust, so if you want to be trusted you have to be visible.”

An artist's rendering shows the new M. D. Anderson
Banner Cancer Center, scheduled to open in 2011.

This phrase, which was a daily and successful practice of that CEO and now Fine, led him (Fine) to reveal his cancer diagnosis and regularly update his progress to Banner Health’s more than 35,000 employees. In Fine’s monthly column he used a photo that displayed a newfound baldness that was the result of his cancer treatments.

“I was amazed at the feedback I received,” he recalls. “Through e-mails, cards and letters, many employees revealed their own experiences with cancer, and all of them expressed their support of my situation. Often, these communications helped me through some difficult days.”

Work the plan, tune out the static

Another practice that Fine learned through a mentor, while serving as a senior vice president for operations at an academic medical center in Chicago, was the discipline of planning and implementing: “plan the work and work the plan.” With the help of his wife, Fine created and then meticulously followed a plan. “It really helped us navigate through each day — no matter what the day held,” he says.

Fine is well known among his colleagues for his ability to focus, another lesson from a mentor while he was serving as the chief operating officer of a large multi-hospital system in Milwaukee. The trick is “to tune out the static.”

“People with cancer have to deal with a lot during treatments, and it can be easy to lose focus on what it takes to get through treatments successfully,” Fine says. “Thanks to what I was taught by one of my mentors, I can focus on a goal each day and not be distracted by other things going on around me — the static.”

To these three, Fine has added one more management philosophy: The notion that misery is optional. “Misery really is a choice,” Fine says. “Once you recognize that, dealing with cancer is about having the right attitude and thinking positively about your future.”

Bill Byron, senior director of Public Relations and Online Services for Banner Health, contributed this piece to Conquest.

Related article:

Shared Values, Shared Goals for Banner Health, M. D. Anderson

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center