After 20 years at the West Clinic in Memphis, Tenn., Kurt Tauer, M.D., makes it his goal to give patients the best possible cancer care by focusing on the individual rather than the disease.
As a national advocate for the Community Oncology Alliance, Tauer's mission is to educate lawmakers about necessary policy changes that will ensure his patients continue to receive high-quality, personalized care in settings close to home.
While his colleagues say Tauer would rather care for patients than spend time in the limelight, the field of community oncology needed a voice. And, they say, he is the right man for the job.
In recognition of his tireless efforts on both fronts, the American College of Medical Practice Executives and the Medical Group Management Association have chosen Tauer as their 2005 Physician Executive of the Year. He is scheduled to receive the award at the MGMA's annual conference this week in Nashville.
Tauer, 54, and colleague Steven Coplon founded the not-for-profit Community Oncology Alliance after visiting Washington in 2002. "What we found was so astonishing," recalls Coplon, chief executive officer of the 25-physician West Clinic. "A bill was about to be passed that would gut community cancer care. We met with many political leaders and found a complete lack of understanding that community cancer care was serving on the front line in the war on cancer. We had no voice in Washington, and it behooved us -- for the sake of our patients -- to establish one as soon as possible."
Over the past two decades, the delivery of oncological care has increasingly shifted away from hospitals and academic medical centers to community clinics, which now treat 85% of U.S. cancer patients, the alliance said. Community clinics offer patients broad access to high-quality care in a less costly setting than hospitals and have the added benefit of being close to home. The alliance, which represents hundreds of U.S. cancer clinics, has approximately 5,000 oncologist members with at least 6 million patients now being treated.
"The challenge for community oncologists is to preserve this wonderful cancer care that we have in the United States right now," Tauer said. "We have been able [to offer] highly technical cancer treatment, which has resulted in marked longevity of cancer patients and at the same time to allow patients to be at home with their families."
The biggest obstacle facing the alliance, Tauer adds, is maintaining today's high standards of cancer-care delivery, both politically and financially.
Currently Tauer and the group are meeting that challenge head-on by working with Congress to change the Medicare payment system for cancer care. The alliance is calling for a 2006 funding extension for the CMS Chemotherapy Demonstration Project, which is set to expire at the end of the year. The move would prevent $400 million to $500 million in cancer-care Medicare cuts, the alliance said.
"The demonstration project has played a very important role in correcting the shortfall from the CMS reimbursement for treatment of Medicare patients," Tauer said. The project "allows the oncologist to maintain the level of care the cancer patients need and also allows CMS to get the appropriate information to help them make future plans for oncology care for the nation."
Because the alliance has a network of hundreds of practices and thousands of physicians, it can offer members of Congress insights on how changes in payment would affect providers and patients on a local level, said Dawn Holcombe, a board member of the group.
"Being able to tie a local message with the national policy discussions is incredible," said Holcombe, executive director of the Oncology Network of Connecticut. Holcombe was among several of Tauer's colleagues who nominated him for the ACMPE-MGMA award.
"And the knowledge that each of these practices and physicians has gained about how their voice on behalf of their patients makes a difference in the setting of national policy is unmatched in any other medical specialty that I know of."
In addition to his advocacy work, Tauer has made great strides in advancing research and improving patient care.
"Dr. Tauer, more than any oncologist I know, has spearheaded the success of community oncology by focusing on the whole patient, not just the tumor," Coplon said. "There are numerous initiatives that he has pioneered in clinical trials and quality of life that have utterly changed the cancer-care landscape. He is a true pioneer."
Despite his achievements in research and advocacy, Tauer continues to find his greatest professional rewards in caring for his patients. "Dr. Tauer is a man of faith and compassion," Coplon said. "He did not seek to be a person of prominence; it was a mantle of responsibility that fell upon him. He simply wants to be a practicing oncologist caring for patients."
Kathleen Harkness Passarelli is a freelance writer based in Frankfort, Ill. She can re reached at [email protected]
Kurt Tauer, M.D.
Education: M.S. in pathology, Indiana University School of Medicine; M.D., St. Louis University School of Medicine
Residency: Baptist Memorial Hospital, Memphis, Tenn.
Practice: Hematology and medical
Leadership: Senior partner, West Clinic, Memphis