Ryan Schmocker, 37, surgical oncologist at the University of Tennessee Medical Center and assistant professor at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine
Prior to 2020, access to robotic liver or pancreas surgeries in East Tennessee was limited. And then Dr. Ryan Schmocker came to the Cancer Institute at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.
Trained at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Schmocker brings a unique skill set to the area, prompting a rapid expansion of robotic surgical techniques and other complex operations for cancer of the liver, pancreas, and gastrointestinal tract.
He has led the charge at UT Medical Center increasing its efforts in advancing cancer care and has provided access to several gastrointestinal cancer clinical trials for his patients. He is also a passionate teacher dedicated to training future surgeons and physicians with care and practical experience.
When you reflect on your career so far, what achievement stands out the most?
Since I began my position at UT Medical Center in 2020, I have been able to provide access to four separate national clinical trials for our patients. In addition, we are working to start a pancreatic cancer clinical trial from scratch. Despite the significant improvement in the care of cancer patients in recent decades, there remains considerable opportunity to improve outcomes for many of the cancers I care for (including pancreatic cancer). Because of the great potential for improvement, I believe it is important to enroll as many patients as possible in clinical trials, when appropriate.
What is the biggest professional obstacle you have had to overcome and how did you overcome it?
My biggest hurdle so far has been expanding the robotic cancer surgery program at UT Medical Center to include the complex care of gastrointestinal cancers, such as liver and pancreatic cancer. Although I had extensive exposure and training in these operations, I found implementation at a new facility challenging with the nuances and differences in culture, availability of resources, and support. In addition, training for operating room personnel turned out to be a critical component. Fortunately, at UT Medical Center, I have been blessed with incredible partners, staff, institutional support, and resources to succeed.
What will you focus on in 2023?
My goal is to expand the type and number of cancer cases that can be performed with a minimally invasive approach, either laparoscopic or robotic, for the benefit of our patients. Also, I want to make sure that every patient with a complex cancer diagnosis is cared for by a multidisciplinary team of cancer specialists with specific approaches. These include specialists in: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, integrative health, genetics, clinical trials, palliative care, and nutrition. We have the benefit of well-established site-specific tumor boards, which incorporate the expertise of our specialists to develop real-time treatment plans, to help achieve this goal.
What is your biggest professional dream?
It is my professional dream that all patients diagnosed with cancer in East Tennessee have access to individualized multidisciplinary care and, when appropriate, minimally invasive cancer surgery. This would allow patients to access the highest quality care in East Tennessee, obviating the need to travel for this care and ensuring they can get the best care close to home.
From which mistake did you learn the most?
Early in my practice I made the mistake of over-internalizing some of my patients’ struggles. I had several patients with very advanced cancers who were not eligible for surgery. I empathized with them to the point that it was difficult to be objective with my treatment recommendations. I was finally able to realize that even though it’s hard to tell patients that surgery is not an option, I was recommending the best, even if it wasn’t the recommendation they expected to hear.
What motivates you?
Provide each patient with state-of-the-art, individualized and comprehensive cancer care.
What’s the most overrated business advice you’ve ever heard?
I can’t think of a more false statement than “Health care is just like any other business.” The care, dedication, sacrifice, and excellent care provided across the spectrum of healthcare delivery—from environmental services to CEO—drive an unwavering commitment to caring for the sick the way we would like to be. treated. Brilliant people give up easier, less stressful, higher-paying careers to care for others. This sentiment is often lost in discussions of health care. That statement also fails to capture that people’s lives are literally at stake and that interaction with the healthcare system is a universal human experience.
What trait do you want most in a coworker?
What would you like to improve about Knoxville?
I would love to further educate the community on the importance of cancer screening tests for the early detection of cancers and risk mitigation of the factors that lead to the development of cancer. In a perfect world, everyone would be on time, every time, with the right age- and gender-specific cancer screening and prevention measures.
What don’t people know about you?
I am originally from La Crosse, Wisconsin and was an athlete in three sports in high school: football, wrestling, and golf. I am a huge Wisconsin sports fan.