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New AATS CEO outlines his “people-centric” goals for the future

January 28, 2022

By Libby Plummer

Image of New AATS CEO David R. Bobbitt, MSc, MBA

David Bobbitt brings unique insights to his new role as CEO of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery (AATS)

For one, he’s spent most of his career as a professional fundraiser and nonprofit executive, heading organizations that advance clinical data standards and entrepreneurship. Still, his extensive experience in the nonprofit sector did not prepare him for what he would find on joining this society: he was astonished at what it manages to achieve with a staff of just over two dozen:

Our staff is small but mighty. When you see how much this organization does, you would imagine that it has a staff of 100 people. As a new leader coming in and looking at what this organization accomplishes … it’s amazing. This organization thrives thanks to a talented team that includes incredibly committed surgeons who work all day in the operating room, and then work for AATS in their limited spare time.

People are our greatest asset.

Now, he plans to use his “people-centric” approach to leadership to boost diversity and inclusion and expand the already thriving organization in some essential ways.

Though its name may suggest otherwise, AATS is actually a global organization that dates back to 1917. The society’s parent journal, The Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery (JTCVS)opens in new tab/window is the leader in its field and is one of six journals overseen by AATS. Three of these journals are owned by Elsevier and affiliated with the society, and the other three are owned by the AATS and published by Elsevier.

“Excellence and diversity are complementary.”

One of David’s key goals for the society is to boost diversity and inclusion. Many long-established organizations struggle with their elite nature being contradictory with the drive towards diversity and inclusion. And with AATS being a long-established organization with an invitation-only membership, David acknowledges this contradiction but firmly believes that there is still room for change:

At AATS, we take the position that excellence and diversity are actually complementary. Instead of seeing this as a challenge, we see diversity as an opportunity.

While the society has no plans to change its nomination-based membership process, it is taking steps towards a more inclusive future. “We've built an equity and inclusion committee and we’re focused on making sure we reduce any historical structural barriers to entry,” David said.

Having grown up in poverty in rural Virginia, David was the first  in his family to attend college. This gives him a real-world perspective on the barriers faced by people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and as a gay man, David also brings a vital perspective on representation from the LGBTQ+ community.

To address structural barriers to inclusion, AATS has added new research grants for early stage surgeons and medical students in historically underrepresented groups. David hopes this will encourage more people from different backgrounds to enter the specialty.

In another step towards a more inclusive specialty, Dr Yolonda Colsonopens in new tab/window, Chief for the Division of Thoracic Surgery at Massachusetts General Hospitalopens in new tab/window and Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical Schoolopens in new tab/window, is set to become the society’s first woman president in 2022.

Yolonda Colson, MD, PhD

Yolonda Colson, MD, PhD

Boosting revenue and training and using data for decision-making

Adding new revenue streams is another key goal for David. He also aims to acquire and utilize more data to enable the society to make more evidence-based decisions.

David also highlights the importance of continuing to be a valued resource for members in terms of education and training. He said:

Our specialty is changing rapidly. Technology continues to change how our surgeons do their work, and AATS will continue to be at the forefront of that change.

David believes that the recent appointment of Dr. Alec Pattersonopens in new tab/window as Editor-in-Chief of JTCVSJTCVS Openopens in new tab/window and JTCVS Techniquesopens in new tab/window will help the society accomplish its goals:

As well as being a well-respected surgeon and former AATS president, Alec brings this ability to look at old problems with fresh eyes. He shares my commitment to diversity and is already having those conversations to ensure that we have an excellent group of associate editors that reflect the diversity of the specialty.

Alec Patterson, MD

Alec Patterson, MD

“Innovation always requires change.”

Will it be difficult to implement change in an elite society with such a long history?“One of our core values is innovation – and innovation always requires change,” David said:

Our surgeons are very research conscious. They're dealing with some of the most medically frail patients, and when surgery is successful, they can literally add years to that person's life.

But they take it a step beyond the individual patient in front of them. They’re concerned about what they can learn today to improve the care they provide tomorrow. And also, how their work can inform research to help even more patients. And that's great for an organization that’s on a journey of change, because it means that our surgeons really understand change.

As part of its transformation going forward, the society is developing the AATS Quality Gateway (AQG), a technology platform that will change how medical societies build and utilize registries. David thinks this project will be a “game changer for the specialty.”

Improving work life in the new normal

Because David joined AATS in 2021, all of his work so far as CEO has been set against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. And as is the case for many other organizations around the globe, the biggest COVID-related challenge for AATS is the lack of boundaries caused by remote working, he said:

Those boundaries are incredibly important. Our biggest challenge right now is helping our staff navigate appropriate boundaries around working from home to maximize their satisfaction and also their productivity.

Under David’s stewardship, AATS has brought in several measures to combat this, including a resource called BillionMindsopens in new tab/window, a personal effectiveness platform that offers scaled coaching to help employees manage their schedule.The society has also implemented ground rules for meetings and work hour expectations. In addition, an Employee Engagement Committee has been introduced to bring back some of the more fun aspects of work that help to build camaraderie.The pandemic has also had a major impact on in-person annual meetings for organizations worldwide. Like most other societies, AATS made the switch to virtual conferences over the course of the pandemic but plans to return to a fully in-person Annual Meeting in Boston in May 2022. The call for abstracts for the upcoming annual meeting has had a huge response — the second highest number for an Annual Meeting in AATS history. This combined with an invitee confirmation rate of more than 95% suggests a great deal of pent-up demand. “Our community is hungry for in-person meetings,” David said.And finally, does David have any advice for other society CEOs and leaders on thriving in these challenging times?

As a leader, always be humble. Leadership is a discovery process, so if you think you have all the answers, you definitely don’t. Listen and learn and be open to discovery.