Many American College of Surgeons (ACS) members and staff were deeply saddened to learn that the College’s former Executive Director, Thomas R. Russell, MD, FACS, died August 4 after a four-year battle with cancer. Tom was a very personable, optimistic, and dedicated leader, and he accomplished a great deal in the 10 years in which he served as Executive Director.
He assumed that role in January 2000—a time of considerable strife within the organization. Furthermore, the Institute of Medicine was set to release the seminal report To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System, which brought to light the number of complications and deaths resulting from medical and surgical error. It was clearly a time for a leader with a bold vision, integrity, and compassion.
Dr. Russell fit the bill and led the College through a decade of change that centered largely on refocusing the organization on its core mission of promoting quality, establishing standards of care, and putting the patient first. He began by implementing a strategic planning process, which resulted in the reorganization of the College into four core divisions: Education, Research and Optimal Patient Care, Advocacy and Health Policy, and Member Services—now the pillars of this organization.
Perhaps one of Dr. Russell’s most significant accomplishments was bringing the Veterans Affairs (VA) National Surgical Quality Improvement Program into the private sector as ACS NSQIP®. This program launched in 2004 and is now credited with helping nearly 550 hospitals discover systemic problems and understand the steps they need to take to achieve better outcomes, reduce costs, and save lives. He also was a driving force in the creation of the Clinical Scholars in Residence Program, which provides surgical residents with opportunities to work on-site on the College’s quality improvement programs to develop innovative solutions to problems in patient care.
Dr. Russell also led the charge to enhance the College’s educational programming, including a redesign of the Clinical Congress to help surgeons meet new and evolving Maintenance of Certification requirements. In addition, the College began offering more hands-on educational opportunities, including simulated training in new technology and procedures at the ACS Accredited Education Institutes.
Under Tom’s direction, the College also established the ACS Foundation in 2005 to better support its scholarship programs. This expansion of the College’s former Development Program led to a proliferation in the number of types of educational opportunities that the College provides to residents and surgeon researchers.
Dr. Russell sought out ways to help improve the College’s visibility and influence in the health policy arena. Soon after he became Executive Director of the College, it became clear that the sustainable growth rate formula used to calculate Medicare payment was terribly flawed and could result in payment cuts that were untenable to many surgeons and, therefore, had the potential to jeopardize patient access to care. To provide surgeons with a more powerful voice in Washington, DC, the Board of Governors’ Committee on Socioeconomic Issues suggested that the College establish a political action committee (PAC). Tom and the Regents approved the concept and played a pivotal role in the development of the ACS Professional Association and its SurgeonsPAC.
In addition, Dr. Russell sought to expand the ACS Division of Advocacy and Health Policy. To physically accommodate this growth, a larger facility that was closer to Capitol Hill was constructed at 20 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC.
Most of all, Tom was a bridge builder. He had a gift for connecting with all surgeons and ACS staff. Dr. Russell traveled extensively as Executive Director, reaching out to ACS members through the chapters and to other members of the operating room team, including anesthesiologists, nurses, and technicians.
Tom treated everyone with kindness, respect, and affection. Those health care professionals and ACS staff who had the pleasure of knowing him clearly felt the same way about him, as evidenced by the many e-mails we received from members and comments from the staff upon the announcement of his death.
He was a devoted and loving husband and father, and I know he so was pleased that both his daughters, like he and his wife, Nona Chiampi Russell, MD, a pathologist, had chosen careers in medicine. Katie will soon embark on a fellowship in pediatric surgery, and Jackie is a veterinary medicine student.
More details about Tom’s life and career can be found in an In Memoriam, but I wanted to use this column to speak as his successor and to highlight what I see as his greatest accomplishments. He left the College well-positioned to face the challenges of this decade and with a hard-working staff that is committed to helping the members provide optimal care. I believe Tom was happy with the progress the College was making in fulfilling his vision, and I intend to ensure that we continue to move in that direction.