Q&A with STS President Robert S.D. Higgins

Robert S.D. Higgins, MD, MSHA

Robert S.D. Higgins, MD, MSHA

In the past year, STS President Robert S.D. Higgins, MD, MSHA, has led tireless efforts to enhance and expand the Society’s activities in many important areas. As his presidential term comes to a close Monday evening, he looks back at the achievements, challenges, and lessons learned—and shares a preview of his Presidential Address, which he will deliver Monday morning at 11:15 in Great Hall A.

Q: What are you most proud of accomplishing during your year as STS President?

Dr. Higgins: We have been fortunate with the great support of the volunteer leadership and STS staff to craft a vision for the future of the Society. I’m proud that we’ve been able to enhance the STS National Database, create educational opportunities for young cardiothoracic surgeons, address concerns about physician reimbursement, and work together with our colleagues in Europe and across the country. Our specialty has an impact on some of the most deadly and challenging medical conditions in the Western world—namely, atherosclerotic heart disease and lung cancer. And if we keep our eye on the prize, we will continue to be influential in those diseases, help patients, and benefit society. Honoring our past while also creating a sustainable future has been a source of pride for me this past year.

Q: You’ve been very involved with the recent enhancements to the STS National Database. Why is this such an important endeavor?

Dr. Higgins: We know that our Database has been the gold standard for clinical registries over the past 30 years. And yet, we needed to modernize and improve it to meet the demands and needs of our membership. It’s pretty clear, though, that with the pressures in the market, we need to stand together as a specialty with one data-driven, cohesive voice to address the concerns that people have about quality and patient safety. If we divide our voice, we lose traction and impact.

Dr. Higgins (right), pictured here with European Association for Cardio-Thoracic Surgery Secretary General Domenico Pagano, MD, FRCS(C-Th), FESC, said that establishing stronger relationships with colleagues throughout the world has been a key achievement in his year as STS President.

Dr. Higgins (right), pictured here with European Association for Cardio-Thoracic Surgery Secretary General Domenico Pagano, MD, FRCS(C-Th), FESC, said that establishing stronger relationships with colleagues throughout the world has been a key achievement in his year as STS President.

Q: What challenges has the specialty encountered during your term?

Dr. Higgins: In addition to modernizing the Database, we again have been trying to build a platform of collaboration across our specialty between our European, Asian, and African colleagues. There’s a recognition that many people in our society are not able to benefit from heart and lung surgery, and there are significant disparities in care. Recognizing those disparities and working to fix them is an important aspect of what we should be doing, because it really is about the patient in the final analysis.

We’ve also dealt with challenges related to public reporting of surgical outcomes, and some of our congenital colleagues have felt that they’re under the microscope. We’ve been working hard to address their concerns, and we’re proud and happy that Joe Dearani, who’s a world-renowned pediatric and congenital heart surgeon, is coming in as President. We’ve also created a task force of leaders from around the country to advise us, and hopefully, that group will improve our ability to provide feedback for patients and families alike and share best practices. I think it’s a really positive time for action, and our leadership has stepped up.

Q: How do you want to be remembered in your role as President?

Dr. Higgins: I’m hopeful that people will remember me as someone who listened first, who acted strategically and wisely, and who paved the way for others who have not historically been considered for leadership roles—who showed women and people of color that they have a future in our organization. That would be a cool legacy to leave behind for future generations.

Q: Drawing on your experience as President, what advice would you give to the next generation of STS leaders?

Dr. Higgins: I’ve learned a lot as a leader, and I hope that I can pass along some of these lessons to those who will come after me. To our trainees, I would say that they not only have to work hard and have talent, but also have passion, persistence, and grit to accomplish their goals. It’s also important to diversify your skillset to adapt to the changing future.

We also have to change our perspective in terms of mentorship and sponsorship. We need to reach out to women and others who have been underrepresented in our specialty and bring them into the fold. 

Q: You’ll give your Presidential Address on Monday morning. What can attendees expect to hear?

Dr. Higgins: As I thought about my year, I thought about the lifesaving benefits of cardiac and lung cancer surgery over the past 75 years. We are continuing to grow, develop, and save lives—millions of lives—and we respect and admire that. That requires progressive leadership and learning from the past to adapt our leadership for the next generation. This generation has different expectations, and we need to be aware of that.

We also have to keep our eyes on what’s really important in our lives. Not so much the day-to-day grind, but rather, developing successful strategies to not only be satisfied in our work, but happy in our work. In my address, I’ll refer to some of the tenets that we have as an organization—inclusion, diversity, teamwork, collaboration, and quality. All of those things need to come together to make you feel happy in the field of cardiothoracic surgery. 

I’ll offer some advice for people to think about, like looking for humor in life, being a teacher or a leader, learning to cultivate compassion, working in your community, and using coaching when necessary. Those things will make what we do even that much more gratifying. That’s the message I’ll be trying to get across.

One of the great quotes that I’m going to use in my talk—and there are many of them—says that life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain. And I think that’s been one of the things I have emphasized this past year.