ASH CLINICAL NEWS: A CURE FOR CONGRESS?
An Interview With Jason Westin, MD
August 1, 2017
As a hematologist and researcher, Jason Westin, MD, has dedicated his career to expanding and advancing treatment options for patients with lymphomas. Now, he’s turning that focus to the American health-care system. In May, Dr. Westin announced his run for Representative of the 7th Congressional District of Texas.
Jason Westin (middle) with his family.
ASH Clinical News spoke with Dr. Westin about why he decided to enter the congressional race, coming off the sidelines to take a political stand, and how he’s navigating the challenges of balancing politics and patients.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you become interested in politics?
Fresh out of college, I was deciding between going into politics or medicine. I had been accepted to medical school, and I also interned in Senator Bob Graham’s (D-FL) office, where I worked on health policy. It was an eye-opening experience, but I thought I could do more good for more people as a physician.
What inspired you to return to politics at this stage in your career?
It was a difficult decision to make, and one that my wife and I struggled with. She is also a doctor and cancer researcher, so she understood that running for office would mean making some tough sacrifices. Eventually I realized that, while I wouldn’t be able to take care of patients as an elected official, I would be advocating for them in a different way.
I still love my job – I’m not moving into politics because I don’t want to be a doctor anymore. Yet, I feel that we need people with experience in health care and research to find solutions to the problems we face. I didn’t build my medical career to try to transition into politics, but I think my medical career will serve me well in that transition.
When did you throw your hat into the ring?
The November election last year changed how I view politics and the direction of our country. The morning after the election, I felt like the country needed people with different perspectives. Of course, as a doctor and not a politician, I didn’t have much knowledge of how to get my voice heard. At first, I thought about supporting candidates or speaking out or testifying in hearings, but then I came across 314 Action – a group of political professionals who are geared to help doctors and scientists get off the sidelines and into politics.
Most of my fellow doctors are political people with strong beliefs, but we are apolitical in our professional lives. For that reason, many doctors don’t tend to get involved in politics. So, discovering 314 Action (named after the first three numbers of pi) has been helpful. With their guidance and support, I’ve built a team that’s helping to make this a legitimate, and hopefully successful, campaign. This is not a moral crusade – we’re in it to win.
Who are your opponents?
First, I’ll be running against several candidates in the March 2018 Democratic primary. The advantage of a primary is that it gets more people engaged in their local politics. They may all support various people at the initial stage, but at the end of the day, we all want to come together and support our candidate in the general election. For that reason, I’m keeping my primary race positive and focused on the issues that matter. I don’t want to do anything that’s going to be detrimental to the race going the right direction.
If I get through the primary, my opponent in the general election would be Rep. John Culberson, a career politician. He’s been in elected office for more than 30 years and has been in Congress for nine terms. He has coasted along without a serious challenge for a long time. He’s voted with President Trump 100 percent and has not modified or moderated his positions at all. And, though he represents a district with a strong health-care and research focus, he supported the American Health Care Act – it’s hard to reconcile those things.
This election would involve an outsider running against a classic insider, and I hope it brings about real change.
What has the race been like? Were you surprised by anything about politics?
It’s been busy. When I announced my congressional run, people would joke, “Oh, you didn’t have enough to do already?” I’d say, “I have a few extra minutes a day, I figure I might as well fill those, too.” My day-to-day life has been similar, but I’m still finding the balance between seeing patients, managing trials, and having time for my family. My wife and I have three young kids (ages 9, 5, and 2), so our lives are full.
Unfortunately, I will have to hand off some of my research responsibilities to my capable colleagues. My research team has been very supportive and are helping pick up the research slack so that we’re able to keep the research studies going 100 miles an hour. Patient care, of course, is paramount and will never take second place to outside interests.
One drawback of this undertaking is having less contact with the people I care for and who care for me. Still, it’s necessary for me to do, and my patients understand that I am running to try to improve health care for the wider population. It’s similar to why I enjoy doing clinical research: If I’m seeing a patient in the office, I can help that one person; if a trial succeeds, I can potentially help hundreds or thousands of people.
One of the things I’ve learned is how important fundraising really is. As a constituent, it wasn’t something I thought of; I’d get emails or phone calls asking for donations, without understanding how essential these are. Even small donations can help build a movement – that’s something American Society of Hematology members who are interested in politics may not know.
Will it be a tough race in your district?
Texas’s 7th Congressional District encompasses an area of Houston with a large population of people who are connected to the medical field through the Texas Medical Center, a medical complex that the Texas legislature established in 1945. The center contains medical schools, research facilities, and a number of hospitals in a tightly packed area.
It’s a heavily medicine- and science-oriented district. It’s also a changing district. Twenty or 30 years ago, Texas tended to vote heavily Democratic; over the past two or three decades, that trend has reversed and we have gone heavily Republican. That has been shifting recently, though. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton carried the district – a district that Mitt Romney won by more than 20 points in the previous election cycle. I think that is a reaction to the disrespect for science and the handling of health care expressed by Republican legislators. I also think it speaks well for the 7th district’s chances to elect somebody with my background.
If you win the election, what will your first priorities be?
Obviously, I would want to continue to work on health care. I think that the Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act are the opposite direction in which we need to be moving. I am a lymphoma specialist, so all my patients, by definition, have pre-existing conditions. They don’t see me unless they have a diagnosis that would put them at risk for losing health-care access if the pre-existing condition protections were dropped. And if people lose their insurance, they will be less healthy, be less productive, and have shorter lives. So, trying to expand access to care and reduce costs of care would be my main priorities.
Because I also wear the hat of a researcher, I would focus on increasing funding. I’ve received research funding from the National Institutes of Health, so I know how critical that is for making progress in finding new cures. Medical research is also an industry that creates thousands of jobs.
However, it’s not a perfect system. Writing and designing clinical trials have shown me that there is room for improvement in the ways that we conduct research in the United States. Much of our research is funded by private companies that have a financial interest in the outcomes of that research. Often, they are seeking a new drug approval, rather than seeking cures for chronic diseases. These don’t have to be mutually exclusive goals, but I think we need to change the metrics for success.
In U.S. community practices, 97 percent of patients with cancer receive the standard of care. Only three percent participate in clinical trials. We would not need to radically rewrite research to accelerate progress; even an increase to six or 10 percent clinical trial participation would mean a significant push forward in our ability to search for cures.
Do you have advice for your hematology colleagues who want to get involved in politics?
It’s important to get help. You have to talk to people, like the members of 314 Action, who have done this before and are knowledgeable about the process. Doctors and scientists have a lot to lose by running for office. First, it means putting yourself out there by taking a political position, and second, it means putting your work on hold – and grants and research don’t do well when put on pause.
If you’re interested in participating in politics, you have to be passionate about it and you have to be determined to win. The way to do that is building a good team and listening to their advice.
Do your patients know that you’re running for Congress? If so, how have they responded – especially those who don’t share your political beliefs?
I’m not hiding the fact that I’m running for Congress, but I’m also not bringing it up with patients in the clinic. I don’t want politics to have any impact on the care that I’m delivering to my patients.
As patients learn about my campaign, though, they have generally been supportive. They’re mostly worried about whether I’ll be able to keep taking care of them if I win.
A number of my patients don’t share my political beliefs. During last year’s 24/7 coverage of the presidential election, many would try to engage me in a political discussion, but doctors have to remain apolitical in the clinic. I would deflect their comments and return the subject to their health. I may say, “I appreciate different opinions, but that’s not why you’re here to see me. Let’s get back to the important issue here in the room: helping fight your cancer.”
I haven’t yet had any patients leave the clinic or change doctors, and I think that’s because of the personal relationships we’ve formed. We may disagree on a specific policy, but my patients recognize that there is more to me than my political beliefs.
Disclaimer: The American Society of Hematology is a non-partisan organization that does not support any political candidate or party.