Q&A: ATS President Nicholas S. Hill, MD

Nicholas S. Hill, MD

Nicholas S. Hill, MD

Nicholas S. Hill, MD, discusses the Society’s accomplishments over the past year and some of the directions set during his tenure as president.

Q. When you became ATS president last year, you said that one of your goals was to increase the ties between the ATS and the ATS Public Advisory Roundtable, the Society’s patient arm. Why and what progress have you made in this area? 
A. The basis for my interest is simple: Ultimately our mission is to help patients and their families. Everything we do as professionals, whether we are clinicians or researchers, starts with them. Patients keep us grounded as a professional organization.

The ATS PAR just celebrated its 10th anniversary, so it seemed an appropriate time to convene a commission, which I was happy to chair, to see how we might enhance our efforts even more. The commission has three recommendations.

First, that we extend our highly successful collaborative efforts in Washington to the local level, where patients and ATS members could visit representatives in their district offices. A top priority of this grassroots effort is getting Congress to maintain its commitment to funding research that can lead to cures. The commission’s members are unanimous in this belief: research is vital to addressing healthcare costs, access and quality—regardless of political affiliation.

Second, to enhance our education efforts, we asked what additional materials should we provide? How can we make information more accessible?

Among other things, we decided that our patient education materials ought to be mobile friendly, so by the fall we want all our education fliers, which now number about 50, to be readable on smartphones and other mobile devices. We also looked at how we might build on patient participation in our International Conference (IC).

Many IC attendees may not know that in addition to patient speakers at our scientific symposia and an ATS PAR Symposium, we hold two patient events on Saturday: a “Meet the Experts” event that puts literally hundreds of patients and their family members together with medical experts in pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine and a “Breathing Better with ATS Forum” on a topic of special interest to patients. This year the topic of the forum was living with lung disease. Both of these events are free and open to the public.

Finally, we explored ways to raise funds to support the ATS Foundation Research Program. Many of our ATS PAR partners have generously supported the program with matching grants, and we talked about ways to increase that support. We also discussed how to increase funding for unrestricted grants. Those discussions resulted in my appointing a separate task force on increasing contributions to the ATS Foundation.

Q. One goal you articulated was to highlight the importance of industry and the academic research community working together in effective and transparent ways. Why is this important?
A. I believe very strongly that industry and medicine—clinicians and researchers, both clinical and basic—must work collaboratively to optimize progress. The challenge, and it’s a big one, is to find ways to manage relationships with industry when there are obvious potential conflicts of interest. But it’s crucial to remember that our aims as industry scientists or academic researchers or clinicians in private practice are the same: We want to harness scientific discovery to advance patient care and eventually cure respiratory disease. It’s clear that government will never support the development of drugs and medical devices at sufficient levels to maintain progress. And industry knows far better than academia how to develop drugs and bring new therapies to market. The key is to make these relationships transparent and efficient, and I’m happy to say that ATS has made considerable progress in this regard.

Q. What about continuing medical education? Is it appropriate for industry to support these programs?
A. I believe industry support of continuing medical education is appropriate, as long as organizations like the ATS can ensure objectivity. Requirements for physicians to demonstrate that they are keeping current are expanding to include Maintenance of Certification credits as well as CME credits. As new solutions come to market for patients, it’s imperative for the ATS to provide education to ensure their appropriate use. It is also important that industry is willing and able to invest in education to improve the daily practice of medicine and enhance understanding of the science behind best clinical practices.

However, the ATS also values its industry members’ intellectual participation in the International Conference. The ATS programs educational sessions that include industry scientists because in certain areas they are the leading experts. These talks go through the additional peer review requirements of the ATS and Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education to ensure fair balance and objectivity. More than 10 percent of ATS members indicate that industry is either a primary or secondary work setting. Sharing knowledge and collaborating across academia, industry, government and private practice is essential for finding new solutions for our patients.

Q. As president you’ve visited many international respiratory societies and attempted to initiate new collaborations. What’s your hope?
A. The ATS has been recognized as an international organization for quite some time. The Society wants to use that recognition to benefit world health. We have a reputation based on the quality of our science and educational activities that gives us considerable influence. So we have an opportunity to be involved in glaring health problems faced more outside the United States than within.

This is why we work on tuberculosis issues around the world via our International Health Committee, provide educational opportunities to physicians in the developing world through MECOR (Methods in Epidemiologic, Clinical, and Operations Research) and other programs, and collaborate with the World Health Organization, which we join in tobacco control and other efforts. We are deeply concerned that smoking is a widespread and growing habit, and this is an issue that Monica Kraft, who will be installed as our new president tomorrow afternoon, is deeply concerned about.

Q. At the end of their terms, most ATS presidents find that the year and the three preceding it as an officer of the Society have gone by too quickly. Has that been your experience?
A. This year has gone by at warp speed. I knew coming into the presidency that ATS is a large and multifaceted organization with many, many talented and dedicated people—members and staff—and that my contributions would be small in this context. I’ve done the best I could with the time allotted to me. And I am reassured by the knowledge that the important work that the Society does will continue apace long after I move on.