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Korean-American oncologist offers valuable advice for physicians
  • By Marian Chu
  • Published 2018.05.24 11:08
  • Updated 2018.05.24 11:08
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Dr. Hong Waun-ki, an internationally renowned Korean-American oncologist, has built a colorful personal and professional resume throughout more than 40 years in academic medicine.

Hong is a professor at the Department of Thoracic, Head and Neck Medical Oncology at MD Anderson, a professor at the American Cancer Society and Samsung Distinguished University Chair Emeritus, having published nearly 550 scientific publications, co-authored eight books, and given 300 speeches, lectures, and presentations around the world.

His work changed the lives of cancer patients in the United States.

Dr. Hong Waun-ki emphasizes a healthy culture of collaboration and integrity among young physicians in a recent interview with Korea Biomedical Review.

Among his notable works in oncology, Hong developed an innovative method to treat laryngeal cancer that allows patients to retain their ability to speak and keep their larynxes intact.

His other landmark contributions include pushing forward research that identifies genetic molecule changes that drive cancer and the Biomarker-integrated Approaches of Targeted Therapy for Lung Cancer Elimination (BATTLE) trial that opened up a new chapter in precision medicine for lung cancer.

In an interview with Korea Biomedical Review, Professor Hong said he is now striving to provide guidance and hope for both medical institutions such as Yonsei Cancer Center as well as young physicians through knowledge derived from his experience.

From 3 wars to medical school to immigrating to the US

Hong was born as the sixth of seven children during the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II. He was seven years old when the Korean War broke out in 1950, and finished and graduated from medical school at Yonsei University in 1967. Dr. Hong served in the Vietnam War in 1968 - the third war to have run through his life - and finally decided to move to the United States.

With only a couple of hundred dollars in his pocket, he moved to New York City where he landed an internship at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital. He recalls facing significant linguistic and cultural barriers in the first 10 years.

“I realized that I wasn’t that good. I experienced major hardships especially during my first three years as a foreigner. I had to overcome language and cultural barriers. English was my second language. It was tough,” Hong said. “I had to work tremendously hard and work my tails off. Fortunately, I was tough enough to overcome the environment.”

Through resilience, tenacity, and determination, Hong tried to build up a healthy culture, build credibility through hard work, and make him indispensable, instead of seeking something to complain about.

After completing his internship, Hong set out to apply to hundreds of hospitals but received few responses, having only one letter of recommendation from an orthopedic surgeon he assisted by holding clamps for five to six hours in grueling operations.

“The surgeon wrote a two-paragraph letter saying that ‘This guy assisted my operations, and he’s very strong at holding clamps,” Hong said, noting that he had to continue applying for almost a year before landing a residency at the Boston VA Medical Center.

At Boston VA Medical Center, Hong found his path, selecting oncology as his field and then went on to enter the fellowship program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. At the time, he recalled that he felt behind.

“I was way behind; I started at the bottom. However, it is not important who starts first. It is important who finishes first,” he said. Hong noted that out of the 14 members in his fellowship program, he was the first to become a full professor at the age of 42.

Hong decided to stay in the public sector for research and began working at the Boston VA where he stayed for nine years. From there, he moved to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and completed the research that propelled him to become a near iconic figure in cancer medicine.

Hong was named the chief of Thoracic/Head and Neck Medical Oncology at MD Anderson in 1993 and appointed the head of the Division of Cancer Medicine in 2001 to preside over 15 departments and 375 faculty members in cancer medicine at MD Anderson.

Providing guidance as an advisor

Hong now partly works as a special advisor of the Cancer Center at Yonsei Severance Hospital, paying annual visits to his alma mater.

“My role as a special advisor is to see what the Yonsei Cancer Center does regarding cancer patient care and research as well as its infrastructure,” he said. “Yonsei Cancer Center is one of the best cancer centers in Korea, and public expectation is high. Quality of doctors at the hospital is outstanding, but they are spread very thin from seeing too many patients.”

To achieve high-quality patient care with cutting-edge treatment, Hong stressed the importance of research-driven care and noted on the rising popularity of multidisciplinary approach to cancer care.

Aside from working as a special advisor to Yonsei Cancer Center, Hong also spends a significant amount of time giving lectures and talking to young physicians, helping them achieve their goals.

“I tell young people to work hard with passion and with vision. However, the important thing is collaboration and teamwork. Some people can be very smart, but they can be very selfish,” he said. “Individuals are competent, but they do not know how to work together. A culture of collaboration, unselfishness should be cultivated among young people.”

“One has to work very hard and not only hard, but also know how to work with other people. These are interpersonal relationships,” he added. “I see some Koreans in medical school do well on tests, and they are smart. However, you are not taking tests after a certain age. You have a job, and from then on, its social interactions and that comes from interpersonal social skills.”

Hong pointed to self-esteem and integrity to create a healthy culture, establish credibility with others, and overcome adversity.

“You can make lots of money, and that is good, but you have to earn it honestly. Integrity in research and patient care is critical. Integrity is the backbone of building trust,” Hong said.

“Aiming high and seeing the big picture. You have to ask yourself at the end of the day – are you proud of the things you have done?”


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