VOLUME 44 NUMBER 3
She has dedicated three decades to widening the circle, making high-quality health care accessible to more people in need. And in recent years, even as Donna O’Brien ’77 has continued along that path, the longtime hospital administrator and consultant also has been narrowing a circle—that is, working to bring the latest science to more people. “The two goals really are one goal,” she says.
After a career spent in hospital and health system operations and developing community health care programs, O’Brien was asked by the director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to plan an ambitious endeavor: bring state-of-the-art cancer care and research to more community hospitals nationwide, including underserved rural areas and inner cities. In 2007 she helped launch the NCI Community Cancer Centers Program (NCCCP), which now includes 30 community cancer centers in 22 states. For her efforts on the team that developed the program, O’Brien, who is president of the New York consulting firm Community Healthcare Strategies, LLC, was recognized last July with the National Institutes of Health Director’s Award.
“Approximately 85 percent of cancer patients are taken care of in community hospitals,” O’Brien says. “So it makes sense to bring state-of-the-art cancer care to that setting. And that’s also where a lot of the information is, that scientists need. In order to make personalized medicine possible, researchers rely on a connection to a diverse community.”
O’Brien’s work falls right in line with the mission of her alma mater. “Yes, the ‘person for others’ motto is something I really felt at Holy Cross,” she says. “I can’t point to one class or student activity—it was more a case of my whole experience in the campus community promoting those values. Being in a culture like that also resonated with my family background.”
The Jesuit way does run in the family. O’Brien’s father went to Fordham, and brothers Charles Murphy ’78 and Edward Murphy, Jr. ’85 came to the Cross as well. O’Brien went on to earn a master’s degree in hospital administration at Saint Louis University—another Jesuit school.
Following an administrative residency at Tulane, O’Brien was recruited to work at the University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, a world-renowned organization where care was also available to all Texans with cancer, regardless of their ability to pay. The commitment to community, the focus on cancer treatment and research—both were revisited decades later when O’Brien began her work with the NCI.
But something was different the second time around. “My mother had died of cancer since my time in Texas and one of my brothers was diagnosed with lymphoma,” says O’Brien, “so now I have a better appreciation for what patients’ families go through.” The personal connection goes even deeper. Her mother died of a brain tumor called a glioblastoma, which is among the first cancers being researched by the NCI’s Cancer Genome Atlas, a new science initiative to understand the molecular basis of various cancers. NCCCP sites collect biospecimens for The Cancer Genome Atlas project. “It’s nice to be working on a project which could lead to more effective treatments,” she says, “so that other families afflicted by cancer may see a better outcome than ours did.”
What is your take on the health care debate in Washington, D.C.?
The health reform bill expands coverage for people, and that’s something I’ve been in favor of for my whole career. So I see it as a positive.
Do you find the politics distasteful?
It is hard not to, but ultimately we have expanded healthcare coverage. One political measure that’s having a large impact on my work is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or Stimulus Act. Its passage in 2009 has brought the NIH much added funding for research. It’s helped the NCCCP project expand to more communities.
And finally, a not-so-serious question: You’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals, and you must have gotten hungry. What is your position on hospital food?
Is it possible for me to not have a position? [Laughs.] Let me just say this: Food should promote health.
Born and raised: Garden City, N.Y.
Residence: Garden City, N.Y. (with several stops before returning home)
Birthdate: July 16, 1955
Family: husband, Tom O’Brien, who is senior vice president and general manager of RCG Information Technology; daughter Mary Beth, 29, and son Patrick, 27