Aaron D. Bleznak, M.D., MBA, FACS, FSSO, joined Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health in January as Medical Director, Breast Program. We asked Dr. Bleznak about the breast program’s priorities, why he chose surgical oncology and his love of literature.
Why did you choose medicine—and specifically surgical oncology—as a career?
I was born in France, but I grew up in Wyncote, outside of Philadelphia. No one in my extended family had ever been in medicine, and my father strongly encouraged me to become a physician. While I always liked science, I also was very interested in literature. I attended Franklin & Marshall College and kept my options open, taking all the premedical courses and majoring in English. My advisor told me that many physicians are also writers, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Michael Crichton. When the time came to choose, I went to medical school at Jefferson. I have never regretted it. I did publish a short story while in medical school, which won an award from the American Medical Student Association. I always knew I wanted to go into surgery. Without any role models or family members in medicine, I think I imprinted on all the TV shows about surgeons at the time, especially “MASH” and a book I read called “The Making of a Surgeon. During my residency training in New York City, I initially was most interested in trauma but then found that I enjoy the more extended interactions with patients in surgical oncology. Breast surgery and breast cancer treatment were intriguing because there were many opportunities to engage in national clinical trials and research. Because of this research, the field continuously evolves. At the beginning of my career, mastectomy and axillary lymphadenectomy were the only surgical options for women with breast cancer. Now breast conservation techniques and sentinel node biopsy allow us to do less surgery and with better outcomes.
What is your previous professional background?
I practiced breast and melanoma surgery at the Geisinger Clinic, Lehigh Valley Health Network and Sentara Healthcare in Virginia. I also earned an MBA from the University of Massachusetts. My first leadership role was Chair of Surgery in State College, where I eventually became Chief of Staff. I became very interested in process improvement and enhancing the efficiency of our care.
At Lehigh Valley, I served as Vice Chair for the Department of Surgery, Assistant Medical Director for the surgery group practice, and Director of the Breast Surgery fellowship. I’ve been fortunate to have been asked to engage in leadership roles for regional and national medical organizations. In health care, once you start saying “yes,” you find a lot of opportunities to get engaged, and I have had my share, such as serving on the leadership team for development and implementation of Pennsylvania State Cancer Control Plan. Like many other providers who have taken this route, I’ve looked at my administrative roles as a way to help many more patients by improving care processes than I can by direct patient care. Most recently, I have been asked to develop leadership training programs for the Commission on Cancer and work on improving the accreditation process for cancer centers.
What brought you back to Lancaster?
I never would have guessed I would return to Lancaster one day. I was working as Senior Medical Director and Vice President for Specialty Services at Sentara when I got a call from Dr. Marnie Kaplan, who had been one of my breast surgery fellows at Lehigh. She informed me that she had taken a position here and that there was a second opening for someone who was also willing to be medical director. I knew Dr. Larry Shulman from Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center through my work with the Commission on Cancer and called him; he spoke very highly of the cancer program at LGH. One thing that makes health care really fun is the chance to collaborate with people you respect. After doing the same job for seven years, I was interested in a change, and the chance to be more clinically active again was very appealing. About 70 percent of my time is clinical now, working with Dr. Kaplan at LG Health Physicians Surgical Group.
What are some of the breast program’s current priorities?
Our goal is to provide the best care in the best way at the lowest costs. By “cost” I mean not just the money spent but the side effects and complications of our care. In health care there is a tendency to just keep doing more and more, but the data clearly shows that doing more is not always better. To reduce costs we need to understand the financial and clinical implications of what we do, so determining this in a reliable fashion for our breast cancer patients is one of our priorities.
We are looking at expanding breast cancer research in Lancaster, which would be done in collaboration with our colleagues elsewhere at Penn Medicine. We also continue to work on enhancing our patients’ access to care in a timely fashion, which has been shown to improve outcomes. We currently do well in this area, but we can still do more. Finally, we are working to create multidisciplinary clinics, where breast cancer patients can be seen concurrently by a breast surgeon, medical oncologist and radiation oncologist, and develop a collaborative treatment plan in a single visit.
What do you like most about your work?
To me the most fun is working directly with patients. I still love to go into the operating room. I’ve had some patients come down from State College to see me. It’s very flattering when people will drive 2½ hours to see you! Working with Dr. Kaplan again is very enjoyable.
What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
My wife Brenda and I still have a home in Virginia Beach on the Chesapeake Bay, and we spend weekends and occasional weeks there. Our four children are spread throughout the country (Josh in Anchorage, Alaska; Rebecca in Los Angeles; Emma in New York City; and Hanna in Harrisonburg, Virginia), one daughter-in-law, Kristen, and three grandchildren (all in Alaska). I enjoy theater and movies, travel and reading—currently biographies, but my favorite authors (Twain, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Asimov, Conan Doyle) all wrote fiction. I golf but often wind up quoting Twain, who said, “Golf is a good walk ruined.”