The tri-chair concept for SWOG’s new palliative and end of life care committee in development is complete. I am pleased to announce that Dr. Marie Bakitas will join Dr. Bob Krouse and Dr. Mark O’Rourke in leading this new committee, the first of its kind in the National Clinical Trials Network.

I am emphatic when I say we are lucky to welcome Dr. Bakitas, the Marie L. O’Koren Endowed Chair of the School of Nursing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the associate director of the university’s Center for Palliative and Supportive Care – the third largest such program in the U.S.

Dr. Bakitas is a Yale-trained PhD nurse who spent nearly 30 years at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and the Geisel School of Medicine, the medical school of Dartmouth College, where she taught, conducted research, practiced hem/onc nursing, served on the palliative medicine consult service, sat on the institutional review board, and, for a year, ran a cancer survivorship program. If there is one hallmark of Dr. Bakitas, it’s this: She is always out front. Dartmouth even created an annual award in her name – the Bakitas Award for Knowledge, Innovation, and Improvement.

Dr. Bakitas ran Project ENABLE, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation demonstration project offering palliative care support to rural people diagnosed with advanced cancer. Through telehealth coaching, patients received help with the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual challenges they faced after a serious diagnosis. Results showed that patients’ survival and quality of life improved, and that their depression and stress levels decreased. Findings were published in 2009 in JAMA, and earned Dr. Bakitas awards from ASCO, the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Nursing, and the Council for Advancement of Nursing Science.

Dr. Bakitas’ passion is working with underserved, rural cancer patients. When she started nursing in New Hampshire, she was stunned at the poverty and privation she saw. “Some of the people I worked with had no heat or running water. Some were farmers just subsisting off the land. For so many people in rural New Hampshire, getting cancer was not their biggest worry,” she recalls.

The chance to work with a different rural population – one largely African-American rather than white – is why Bakitas made the leap to Alabama five years ago. Along with teaching, she is knee-deep in research projects, including an R01 funding a 48-week phone-based palliative care intervention aimed at improving physical symptoms, quality of life, and mental health status for patients with advanced heart failure. This randomized clinical trial, a fresh take on her work with ENABLE, enrolled 420 patients, of which over 60 percent are African-American.

Dr. Bakitas has completed 17 trials as a principal investigator, and as an advisor, mentor, or co-PI on more than 20 others. She also serves on the steering committee of the Palliative Care Research Cooperative, the only national group running large-scale trials in this field.

In summary, Dr. Bakitas brings serious academic chops to our new palliative care and end of life committee. While she is new to SWOG, she has decades of experience with NCI trials and the NCTN, having been a member of the Alliance. At SWOG, she will be among friends. She has known Drs. Frank Meyskens, Harry Erba, and her new co-chairs, Drs. O’Rourke and Krouse, for years. Indeed, our palliative care and end of life committee already has a half-dozen concepts under review. Her goal: “I want to see if we can run palliative care studies in a cooperative group setting. And I want this work to make an impact.”

Thanks to Frank Meyskens for all his work creating this new branch of research for us, and to James Wade for leading the search committee that brought Dr. Bakitas to SWOG.