Dr. Derek Raghavan

News | 19 days ago

Dr. Derek Raghavan Reflects on Upcoming Retirement

After 11 years leading Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute, Dr. Derek Raghavan reflects on the extraordinary growth at LCI during his time as a physician and administrator with the program – and looks forward to embarking on the next phase of his career.

Those who started working for Atrium Health in the past decade have only known a season in which Dr. Derek Raghavan has been president of Levine Cancer Institute (LCI). But in that decade, so much has changed. Raghavan has led the way as LCI grew to become one of the nation’s leading cancer treatment and research facilities.

Raghavan’s appointment was announced in December 2010, before ground had even been broken for the cancer program’s headquarters now known as “LCI I.” For many, it may be challenging to separate Raghavan as a person from the institution he’s led. 

But as Raghavan prepares for his departure from Atrium Health in early 2023, he is clear that LCI’s growth and success over the last decade are the result of a team effort.

“It’s a fact that in just a few years we’ve earned many significant recognitions, such as a U.S. News & World Report’s gold shield, that took other cancer centers decades to achieve,” Raghavan says. “However, that’s simply a testament to the quality of folks who were here when I arrived, or who joined the team after seeing that something very special was being built here.” 

Caring for underserved communities 

Raghavan’s cancer care approach has always been driven by several guiding principles. None is more fundamental, however, than the idea that the place where a person lives should not determine the quality of available health care.

As a result of this philosophy, it was a given from day one that LCI would strive to make its services available in any community served by Atrium Health facilities.  LCI now has more than two dozen locations. All of which, Raghavan says, are designed to meet the same high standards of quality. 

Raghavan is justifiably proud of the many initiatives undertaken to help people in underserved communities. An LCI outreach team of 15 people, he points out, has been regularly conducting cancer screenings for 40,000 to 60,000 people each year.

As an example of the impact these efforts can have, Raghavan notes that LCI’s mobile lung cancer screening bus –in the process of conducting roughly 2,000 screenings – identified 43 people who had cancer. Two thirds of them were diagnosed at early enough stages that they could be treated and even cured.

Aiding patients overwhelmed by costs

A particular point of pride, Raghavan says, is LCI’s initiative to establish a “Financial Toxicity Tumor Conference.” This is a patient oversight, navigation and management system that effectively helps those in need to better accommodate treatment expenses that can be truly devastating.  

“A lot of people simply assume that medical insurance will cover the bulk of cancer expenses,” Raghavan says. “But what do you do if your treatment costs $1 million per year and you have a 10% co-pay?”

In the past three years alone, the Tumor Conference has provided the equivalent of more than $55 million a year to offer financial assistance for qualifying patients.

Raghavan is quick to point out that while many people focus on “equal access” to health care, they don’t always pay adequate attention to achieving “equal results.” LCI, he says, has had particular success in treating Black and Hispanic patients for lymphoma and leukemia. As a result of aggressive treatments, supported by an outstanding nurse navigation program, LCI has achieved survival rates for those populations equal to the rates for better-resourced patients.  

Success in recruiting

Another point of pride for the retiring LCI president is success in recruiting top-notch specialists and seeing many of them go on to assume top leadership posts at highly respected cancer centers nationwide.

This national impact extends beyond medical centers. One of LCI’s alums now chairs a major committee at the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Another has a prominent position in colorectal cancer on a National Cancer Institute committee. And one is incoming president at the American Society of Hematology.

Raghavan underscores that a natural focus on new services, trials, drugs and procedures should not overshadow the importance of patient satisfaction scores.

“Our scores wouldn’t be so consistently high if LCI didn’t have doctors, nurses and staff who make patients feel valued and well-cared-for in virtually every setting,” Raghavan says. “It’s no accident that LCI was the first cancer institute in the world to gain Gold Certification from the Planetree Organization, which highlights patient-centered care. I believe it also contributed to Atrium Health being selected as the ‘System of the Year’ in 2022 by the American Cancer Society.” 

A timely solution

During his tenure at LCI, Raghavan says the biggest surprise was how easy it was.

“Levine Cancer Institute is historically significant because of the role it played in unifying people and deploying resources that were already here,” Raghavan says. “The Blumenthal Cancer Center was terrific. We had a lot of great independent practices, but without sufficient coordination. One of the main reasons I was recruited was to better integrate these services and add a major cancer research component. LCI was the right solution at the right time.”

Leadership has many dimensions 

While some may view the “Raghavan era” strictly through the lens of medical advances, he himself is quick to point out that leadership has many dimensions and stewardship many facets.

“There’s a saying in my profession that if all you do is medicine you become a bit dull,” Raghavan says.  

No one who has met Derek Raghavan would use the term “dull” to describe him. He has always gone above and beyond to give back to the community. He served for several years as chair of the Charlotte Symphony Board. And he currently serves on the Boards of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center and the World Affairs Council of Charlotte, which honored him in 2019 as “Citizen of the World.”  

Growth driven by escalating demand

At the December 2016 groundbreaking for LCI’s newer edifice along East Morehead Street, now known as LCI II, Raghavan smiled and shared the story of how he was once “at risk” for getting “too far ahead of the curve” in predicting the need for a second cancer facility.  

Back when the ribbon was cut for LCI I, Raghavan had whispered in the ear of then-CEO Michael Tarwater: “Please reserve that grass lawn just up the hill for another cancer center. We’ll be needing that space sooner than you think.” Tarwater laughed and cautioned Raghavan that the first patients had not yet set foot in building number one. “However,” Tarwater added, “if you fill the first building, I’ll be happy to give you a second.”

Based on the rapid growth trends that followed, LCI II in fact opened its doors just a few years later in 2019. Then, as that second building was filling up with patients, Raghavan set his sights on achieving even more growth.

A bright future on the horizon

A third component of LCI is currently under construction at the intersection of East Morehead Street and Kenilworth Avenue. The new building is designed to accommodate proton beam therapy, gamma knife surgery and liquid radiation treatments.  

Proton beam and gamma knife machines are used to minimize collateral damage from radiation therapies. Liquid radiation is used to tag individual cancer cells for destruction. The safe use and disposal of so much radioactive material necessitates the use of a dedicated facility, which is slated to open in 2024. 

As LCI continues to thrive, Raghavan looks forward to returning to his roots as a physician and medical teacher and plans to work part-time at Charlotte’s VA Health Care Center after leaving Atrium Health. Raghavan will also serve as the associate editor of JCO Oncology Practice (published by the American Society of Clinical Oncology).

Grateful for the Levines’ support

Raghavan says it’s been an honor to have served as the “face” of LCI for so many years. He emphasizes, however, that credit for LCI’s evolution should go to the people whose names are on the buildings: Leon and Sandra Levine. 

“If it weren’t for the Levines, we would not have university-style cancer care in this region,” Raghavan says. “Leon and Sandra are two of the most amazing, kind, intelligent and altruistic people I’ve ever known. There are no words to express how lucky we are to have their unwavering support. It’s literally true that their philanthropic impact on the Carolinas is unequaled.” 

Raghavan also acknowledges the support provided by Atrium Health’s current President and CEO Gene Woods.

“Gene took over when we were in a critical stage of development, growing rapidly in size, stature and impact,” Raghavan says. “When possible, he has worked to continue the trajectory set in motion by those who first had the vision for a world class cancer center based in Charlotte.”  

Thankful for Raghavan’s leadership

Leon Levine offers generous praise of Derek Raghavan.

“Under his leadership, LCI has been one of the most impactful and fastest growing cancer centers in the country,” Leon Levine says. “I’ve always been impressed with his drive and determination to build LCI in a way that blends dramatically positive outcomes with premier patient care. I’m thankful for all of the passion and effort he has put into improving cancer care for so many of our neighbors and I wish him the very best in his next chapter.” 

As he looks back upon the entirety of his career, Raghavan says he only regrets that more progress hasn’t been made in rendering cancer less of a threat to humanity. 

“We’ve made good progress with many cancers, but not with all,” Raghavan says. “I’d love to see all cancers reduced to the status of chronic diseases, as long as they are chronic diseases that don’t kill people.”  

Over the course of his time with LCI, Raghavan has published more than 300 papers and 12 books that have contributed to LCI’s research endeavors. With much credit to Raghavan, LCI has expanded to include more than 150 providers at more than 25 care locations. LCI now offers the region’s first adult blood and marrow transplant unit and robust survivorship and cancer rehabilitation programs, Raghavan has been a source of inspiration for many, and we honor and celebrate his dedication to the Atrium Health family.