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Vital Signs

Dietrich is named to DMS's Carroll Chair

By Cathy Shufro

Dietrich now holds an endowed chair.

Two words of advice launched Dr. Allen Dietrich's career as a researcher, and two years on a Zuni reservation enlarged his vision. These and other "fortuitous" influences, says Dietrich, brought him to where he is today: a nationally known researcher in cancer and primary care, associate director of population sciences at Dartmouth's Norris Cotton Cancer Center, president of the North American Primary Care Research Group, a member of the prestigious Institute of Medicine—and, as of last October, DMS's James J. Carroll Professor of Oncology.

Dietrich was a first-year medical student at Case Western Reserve when his mentor, Dr. Thomas Hale Ham (a 1927 graduate of Dartmouth College), offered what Dietrich calls "the most important research advice I've ever gotten. It's two words: 'Always evaluate.' "

Zuni: In his first job out of residency, on New Mexico's Zuni reservation, Dietrich learned another fundamental lesson: heed community context. Residents of the Zuni Pueblo lacked long-term doctor-patient relationships; they would walk into a clinic and get care from whomever was there. As the new clinical director of the reservation hospital, Dietrich set out to transform the system by providing every patient with a "medical home." When he found that people were wary of the change, he and his colleagues made the shift voluntary and paired visiting clinicians with tribal nurses and physician assistants.

It worked. When Dietrich visited the reservation five years later, the staff told him they'd always done things that way. "Not only did we pull it off, but also we made it part of the fabric of the place," he says.

Study: Since 1982, Dietrich has been applying those lessons as a member of the Dartmouth faculty. Shortly after arriving at DMS, he began working with Patricia Carney, then an oncology nurse, on a study of cancer screening for uninsured women. The project "started me on the cancer research pipeline," says Dietrich, and proved to be another turning point in his career.

He and Carney (who, with Dietrich's encouragement, eventually earned her doctorate) joined forces with other Dartmouth colleagues to study how primary-care physicians can improve cancer detection by making routine such measures as breast and colon cancer screenings. He has also studied the treatment of depression in primary-care settings.

Dietrich's mind works so fast it's often "hard to keep up with him."

It is in recognition of his decades of such work that Dietrich was appointed to the Carroll Chair. The chair honors 1948 Dartmouth College and 1949 Tuck graduate James J. Carroll; it was endowed in his memory in 1979 by the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation. One of Dietrich's goals in the post is to develop closer relationships with community physicians to improve cancer screening, prevention, and care. Achieving that will require more than just good intentions, he says. "You need a system. You need tools, teamwork, and tenacity."

In addition, he plans to continue studies on how to protect children from skin cancer—a decade-long collaboration with his wife, Dr. Ardis Olson, a pediatrician at Dartmouth.

Cancer: Dietrich knows cancer not only as a researcher but also as a patient; he was treated for bladder cancer, which is now in remission. His personal prevention program includes never smoking, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting age-appropriate screenings.

Dietrich's mind works so fast that it's often "hard to keep up with him," says Carney, who is now on the faculty at Oregon Health and Science University. "I did the best science I've ever done with him. And he brings a sense of humor with him, so it doesn't feel like work. It really feels like discovery."


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