Q&A with Steven Webber

Published on January 24th, 2013 by user.

Photo by Daniel Dubois

This spring, after an extensive national search, Steven Webber, MBChB, MRCP, was named the James C. Overall Professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

Webber comes to Vanderbilt from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), where he served as the Peter and Ada Rossin Chair in Pediatric Cardiology, professor of Pediatrics at the School of Medicine, and chief of the Division of Pediatric Cardiology at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

Shortly before Webber began his post this fall, he took a break from unpacking his belongings, perched himself on a box in his new Brentwood home, and answered questions about his new role as pediatrician-in-chief at Children’s Hospital, among many other topics.

An accomplished researcher and physician from England, Webber is also a dedicated father who spends much of his free time traveling the country with his wife, Elizabeth, to watch their 16-year-old daughter, Katie, compete in gymnastics. It’s a pastime that he admits, as a parent, is both exhilarating and terrifying.

Webber’s oldest daughter, Hannah, 20, is a junior at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and studying biology.  In his 19 years at UPMC, Webber helped develop a large outreach program to treat children in 15 locations throughout western Pennsylvania and neighboring states. By bringing care out into the community, his cardiology program doubled its patient volume and helped strengthen its relationships with referring physicians.

He also helped grow UPMC’s pediatric transplantation programs, and advanced cutting-edge research that directly improved patient outcomes.

Outside of practicing medicine, Webber enjoys reading biographies and books about history, as well as studying foreign languages.

He spoke about his first impressions of America as an exchange resident at Duke University, his thoughts on joining Vanderbilt’s thriving academic community, and the future of Children’s Hospital.

Tell me a little about your upbringing.  Where did you grow up?
I grew up in London, England, about a mile from Wembley Stadium in the northwest suburbs of the city. My dad was an electrician. We had a very small family…I have one brother, who is a barrister (attorney) and part-time judge in England.

When did you decide you wanted to practice medicine?
From a very early age…I would say around 12 years old. I was very fortunate to have fantastic opportunities that my parents didn’t have. My parents grew up in wartime London and their schooling was interrupted when children were evacuated from the city out to the countryside. A whole generation really suffered. Most of my parents’ generation didn’t finish high school. I was part of the first generation to go to college. My brother went to law school and I went to medical school at Bristol University, which is a very good university in the west of England. Initially, my interests were mainly in tropical medicine and adult cardiology, which is very different from where I ended up.

How did you end up in pediatrics?
When I was practicing adult cardiology in those days, in the mid-80s, the scope was limited. You didn’t have all the broad interventions you have now. Long-term outcomes were generally not good.One of my mentors at the time was a cardiologist from South Africa, who was also experienced in working with children. He said I should consider trying pediatric cardiology.  It sounded very interesting, and many innovative diagnostic techniques, new therapies and advances in congenital heart surgery were just emerging. This meant that children with lethal forms of heart disease such as “blue babies” were now surviving, and with excellent long-term outcomes.So I tried it and really enjoyed it, and it took off from there. Ultimately, I love caring for children and am very passionate about clinical care. I think it’s important, even in an administrative leadership role, to have that passion for treating patients. It makes you a better leader.

You completed residency training at Duke University.  How was transitioning from England to the United States?
I did a pediatric residency at Oxford University, and the chair of Pediatrics at Oxford was friends with the chair of Pediatrics at Duke University. They organized a job exchange for six months. Pediatric residents swapped homes, jobs and cars. It was the first time I’d been to America. I thought all American cities were like Los Angeles, New York or Chicago because that’s what we saw on television growing up. Then I came to Durham, N.C., in 1988, and it wasn’t quite what I expected. Downtown in those days was largely undeveloped and had tobacco warehouses but little else. But I had a fantastic time and met my wife there, who was working at Duke University.

Were there major differences in the health care systems?
Culturally, medicine was very different in England. The National Health Service (England’s publicly funded health care system) had limited resources and we were very cautious in ordering tests. When I came to Duke, everyone who came through the emergency room seemed to get CT scans, blood work and MRIs. I found that to be a bit of an adjustment for the first few months. It’s gone full circle because, now, everyone is talking about the need to spend less on health care. We’re now training our residents to understand the cost of medicine and to focus on evidence-based methods so we only do testing that’s appropriate or indicated. So things we’re now emphasizing in the United States are things that were emphasized to me very early in my career.

What attracted you to Children’s Hospital?
There was clearly a terrific group of faculty members and an excellent group of division chiefs, as well as really strong research programs. Vanderbilt’s Department of Pediatrics ranks very highly in National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding and the quality of the research programs is excellent. I honestly really like Nashville and the people. All the people I’ve met, both in the city and within the Vanderbilt institution, have been fantastic, particularly at Children’s
Hospital. They have been extremely welcoming. The sense of teamwork amongst the leadership was one
of the things that impressed me the most. It helped me distinguish Vanderbilt from other institutions. The dedication and quality of the staff also really stands out at Children’s Hospital, and makes it a fun environment to work in.

What are some goals that you’ve targeted for Children’s Hospital?
Certainly, it’s already a very successful institution. Lots of great work has been done by my predecessors. My goal is to have everyone recognize that all three components of the academic mission – research, teaching and clinical missions – are all equally important and that it’s critical that we continue to excel in all three areas. I’ll be working to make sure that leadership focuses equally on all areas without neglecting one in favor of the other. Obviously, I don’t believe you can be a great institution unless you have absolute excellence in all three areas. Although this is something Vanderbilt already has, there is always room for growth and improvement. We will take our specialist care to even greater numbers of patients, focusing on growth of our outreach programs. We will also continue to enhance the quality of our already excellent training programs for our medical students, residents and subspecialty fellows.  Recruitment of world-class physician-scientists will also be a priority as we move forward Transplantation is also one of my areas of expertise, so I would also love to see our transplantation programs grow.

As you lead us into the next era of Children’s Hospital, what do you believe it will look like?
I think it’s going to be many things. I think we’re going to innovate. Research is going to lead to new therapies that will directly help pediatric patients. This institution is at the heart of discovery, and we will step up the pace of this discovery so that new treatments are tailored to the needs of individual children. Personalized medicine is not just for adults. I see us having one of the best residency programs in the country. We need to continue to advance the residency program so that it is the best place to train, whether your ultimate goal is to be a community pediatrician or to go into subspecialty pediatrics. We need to have very strong fellowship programs so we can train, recruit and keep the best talent here at Vanderbilt. That’s going to be critical for recruiting and retaining the next generation of physician-scientists and world-class subspecialists. We will continue to have an increasing number of referrals for specialty care, not just from within the state, but from all over the country. However, we have to remember our roots as an institution, which is dedicated to serving the community and providing the best possible care for the local children of Nashville and its surrounding areas. This goal requires the strongest possible partnership between our hospital-based teams and community partners and pediatricians.

–written by Jeremy Rush