Meet chief medical officer Welela Tereffe, M.D.

Radiation oncologist Welela Tereffe, M.D., joined MD Anderson in 2005 as an assistant professor and most recently served as the deputy division head for Radiation Oncology. Now she has a new role — chief medical officer. In this role, she educates our health care providers about changes in the health care environment, and what they mean for MD Anderson and our patients.

We interviewed Tereffe recently to find out more: the biggest challenges facing doctors today, why MD Anderson continues to inspire her and the most valuable lessons she has learned from our patients.

What brought you to MD Anderson?

A great boss, a diverse faculty and amazingly friendly people. I’ve stayed since 2005 for those same reasons, and because of the incredible sense of being on a mission together.

Cancer has also impacted my own family. In 1955, my grandfather died in Ethiopia after three short weeks of what was probably liver cancer. In New York in the early 1980s, my uncle died of lymphoma after a few years of treatment. Three years ago in Virginia, my aunt was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer and underwent 10 months of treatment. Today, she’s cancer-free and visiting family all over the globe: she attended a cousin’s wedding in Sweden, and we celebrated another cousin’s birthday in Las Vegas this fall. We didn’t lose her before her time – and I want to be a part of making that true for every family, everywhere.

What does the chief medical officer do?

The chief medical officer is responsible for engaging physicians and advanced practice providers in operational transformations across patient care, such as access, outcomes, safety, costs, experience for patients and providers, survivorship, and end-of-life planning. The chief medical officer also oversees the medical staff governance structure, which has a role in everything from credentialing to faculty peer support.

What’s the biggest challenge facing health care providers today?

The constant and rapid pace of change in health care – everything from electronic health records, to new quality-based payment models, to the proliferation of patient satisfaction surveys. Change can be exhausting, but there’s no pause button available to any of us. Our challenge is to collaborate with institutions, accrediting bodies, insurers and the government to co-create sustainable, beneficial changes for patients, providers and payers.

You’re a constant learner. What have you learned about yourself recently? What have your patients taught you?

In the past year, I’ve learned that my happiness is up to me, regardless of external circumstances. Also, if I use a recipe delivery service, I can transform myself from a kitchen calamity into an Iron Chef.

My patients have taught me that you can be terribly afraid of things beyond your control, and yet keep moving forward. They inspire me to be courageous and grateful in my relationships at work and in the world.

If you weren’t a radiation oncologist, what would you do?

1) Court-appointed advocate for kids in Child Protective Services custody. I volunteered in the Harris County family court system for four years. When my work life is less demanding, advocacy is the first thing I do.

2) I’d provide (free) financial and career advising to people working their way out of debt. I’m passionate about this. Financial insecurity has lifelong effects on children and families, and so does gaining financial control and freedom.

3) I’d pick up trash along Houston’s trails and bayous. When I see litter, I get a little Incredible Hulk-y inside – as in, “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry …”

Describe yourself, in one word.

According to someone who knows me well, “vivacious.”

What do you wish everyone knew about MD Anderson?

We’re 20,000-plus people united in a single noble mission: to end cancer. Everyone here shares that passion, and the patients who come here see and feel the truth of that. I want the world to know us that way as well.

A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s quarterly publication for employees, volunteers, retirees and their families.

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