Corner Office: Meet Joseph Flynn, MD, with Norton Cancer Institute


Dr. Joseph Flynn

Dr. Joseph Flynn

Each month, Medical News catches up with a hospital or health system leader to learn about their organization, interests, and favorite pieces of advice and healthcare issues that ruffle their feathers most.

Key Accomplishments

  • Within his first six months he implemented impressive changes that included same day cancer appointments. You’re diagnosed that day, you can start treatment that day.
  • He developed a revamped Comprehensive Lung Center to tackle lung cancer from screening to diagnosis to treatment, with free eight-week stop-smoking classes now under NCI’s umbrella with the classes taught by NCI nurse navigators.
  • He has initiated a new Adolescents and Young Adults cancer program and transition clinic that focuses on the unique needs of younger cancer patients.
  • He initiated a “Celebration of Courage,” a free community event to happen annually the eve before the Bike to Beat Cancer ride in September to honor all cancer survivors in our community.
  • Starting this month NCI launched a Prompt Care Clinic to provide after-hours critical for cancer patients and help them avoid unnecessary ER visits if problems crop up between their regular oncology appointments.  The first clinic is located downtown with plans to expand this program to all NCI’s locations.

Medical News: How’d you end up being director and chief medical officer for Norton Cancer Institute?

Joseph Flynn: When I became a physician, my ultimate goal was to have a small practice somewhere and enjoy the uniqueness of being a cancer physician. Honestly, I never had the desire to be a leader in healthcare. While stationed in Germany for five years with the U.S. Army, I received the opportunity to lead a cancer program there and recognized a different level of satisfaction by building programs that could make positive differences for all patients seen in a department.

From there my military, business and clinical experience offered me the opportunity to work at the Ohio State University (OSU) James Cancer Hospital. While there, I took on more and more leadership responsibilities as I maintained my clinical and research interests. Having family in Louisville, I had some general knowledge of what Norton means to healthcare in the region, but was not aware that this position had opened. A colleague at OSU actually saw the position and suggested it would be perfect for me. When I did my due diligence, everything I learned about the cancer program and Norton Healthcare increased my interest and convinced me to apply.

MN: So, what’s it like?

JF: I have never worked with a more dedicated, caring and compassionate group of folks. The sense of doing good for others and working to create the best outcomes possible for people with cancer are powerful forces at Norton Cancer Institute. A vast number of people have helped me along the way at Norton. The support is incredible. I couldn’t try to list all those who have made this a wonderful experience because I would inadvertently leave someone out.

Imagine working in a place where every person across the organization is supportive of your mission, without jealousy, and they are gracious in their efforts to help you succeed. On top of that, I get to hear and see amazing acts of kindness and witness innumerable people providing comfort to others. Then if that wasn’t good enough, I get to read mail from families whose lives have been forever changed by my colleagues. It is overwhelming! Believe me, there is truly nothing like it.

MN: How’s it different than you expected?

JF: Given the natural human inclination to resist change, I thought it was going to be tougher to get people to accept some new ways of operating, but, to the person, the whole team has been incredible. The level of commitment from senior leadership and our board is incomparable. It’s been a very pleasant and welcome surprise to me to see such a level of commitment and support that is rooted in trying always to do what’s best for our patients.

MN: What’s been the hardest part?

JF: The hardest part has been the fact that my family is still living in Ohio at this time. We are working on that so it should not be much longer, but that is the most difficult thing about the transition.

MN: If you had to choose a totally different career/path, what would it be?

JF: I am fortunate that I have had other paths. I went to graduate school for biochemistry and then to business school. I was in the chemical industry, medical equipment sales and the pharmaceutical industry before going to medical school. I had a lot of great opportunities that ultimately pointed me to what turned out to be the best path for me. I love every day that I get to do what I do. That said, I think had medicine not worked out I would have enjoyed being an architect.

MN: If you were starting today, would you do the same thing again? Why or why not?

JF: I have thought about this quite a bit over the years. The main question I have had is whether I would have taken the circuitous route that I did and had other jobs first, which delayed my eventual entry into medical school. My wife and I were just discussing this recently and I surprised her by saying that I would definitely not change it. I think my experiences leading to this point have given me a much different and maybe deeper and more meaningful perspective than I would have had otherwise. I certainly appreciate where I am today and never take that for granted. I am the absolute luckiest guy and never forget what I have been through to get here.

MN: What advice would you give to someone just starting out trying to do what you’re doing?

JF: The best advice I ever received was to do what you love and you will never work a day in your life.

MN: What were some early leadership lessons for you?

JF: Treat every person with respect. Not coincidentally, this is a key value at Norton Healthcare. Learning during my initial interview that you can see this core value posted everywhere throughout the system’s facilities was a giant check mark in the plus column for me. If you do this, you really don’t need any other rules.

Be definitive. As a physician, I have had to make many major medical decisions that greatly affected people’s lives. As a leader at Norton Cancer Institute, many decisions are made that may directly or indirectly have an impact on care. Despite solid planning and good processes it’s sometimes impossible in the changing environment of healthcare to know the end results of every decision, but I find it best to be definitive.

Be Grateful. The saying goes that you don’t pick oncology, it picks you. Our physicians, nurses, advanced practice providers, pharmacists, registrars, therapists, receptionists have all chosen an incredible field. They expend so much love and kindness. I marvel at how wonderful they are and am so grateful to them for doing so much for our patients.

Finally, I have had many amazing leaders whom I have worked for in my life. The best of them were those who remember that no job is more important than any other and no person is more valuable to the team than any other.

MN: Tell me about your management approach in your role.

JF: I believe in servant leadership. My job, and that of all our leaders, really boils down to developing an environment that ensures the absolute most incredible care is provided to our patients. It’s paramount that we all understand we are serving people in need and should do all we can to make sure Norton is the most technically advanced, caring, compassionate and convenient place anyone can rely on to have their healthcare needs met. To accomplish this, I have to focus on serving the needs of all of the great people at Norton Cancer Institute. Ultimately, my job is to provide the tools to let highly trained, talented, dedicated individuals do their best work the best way possible.

MN: What was most helpful in making it possible to do what you do?

JF: My mother died of cancer and that had a profound impact on me. Still does. A day does not go by that I don’t think of her and remember the feeling I had when she was ill and ultimately died of cancer. That “gift” has always kept me focused on doing better and trying to shape the kind of care people receive. For every program I push forward, whether it’s ensuring same day appointments for patients diagnosed with cancer or offering more convenient care for patients in our new cancer prompt care clinics, I simply conceptualize the answers to two questions. How would this have affected my mom when she was battling cancer? How would it affect my dad who now has cancer? If what I do, and what I strive for, is good enough for them, then we will be ok.



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