The aspirations of incoming ATS President Gregory P. Downey, MD, ATSF, for his term revolve around engaged, responsive leadership for the betterment of ATS members and global health.
“I’m looking forward to working closely with the ATS Executive Committee and the staff to help the Society regain its footing after the COVID-19 pandemic and to accomplish our strategic plan,” he said. “My focus is to emerge stronger to achieve our vision of being the preeminent respiratory society globally in pulmonary, critical care, and sleep health.”
Outgoing ATS President Lynn M. Schnapp, MD, ATSF, passed the gavel to Dr. Downey on Tuesday, May 17, during the Plenary Session.
“We have just come through two years like no other in recent memory because of the pandemic. I think we will emerge stronger and more nimble after this challenging period,” Dr. Downey said.
First becoming an ATS member as a pulmonary fellow in the late 1980s, Dr. Downey joined the Executive Committee in 2019 after being elected Secretary-Treasurer. He has served on the All Executive Committee and Board of Directors; as the chair of the Assembly on Allergy, Immunology and Inflammation; as a member of the Basic Science Core Committee and the Members in Transition and Training Committee; and as deputy editor of the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology.
Dr. Downey is a professor of medicine, pediatrics, and immunology and genomic medicine at National Jewish Health, where he also serves as executive vice president of academic affairs and as provost. He is also professor of medicine and immunology and microbiology, as well as associate dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Denver.
Priorities to Advance Respiratory Health
A multi-year strategic plan developed by the Executive Committee has positioned the ATS to pursue several priorities that Dr. Downey champions.
1) Expanding the educational offerings provided outside of the International Conference throughout the year.
Recognizing the need to evolve its educational platforms to deliver the highest quality educational material to members, the ATS has purchased a learning management system that can support year-round learning through didactic lectures, seminars, podcasts, and discussion groups in a virtual environment.
“Now we can provide these activities, either synchronously or asynchronously, and allow our members who are geographically dispersed to have access to this high-quality educational material at a time and in a format that is convenient for them,” Dr. Downey said.
2) Increasing the focus on early career members.
“By focusing on early career members, we are really focusing on the future of the Society,” he said.
3) Promoting and supporting research.
“In hard times, research always seems to get the short shrift of funding, but I’m proud to say the ATS has maintained its level of funding throughout the pandemic, and one of my goals is to expand that further,” Dr. Downey said.
4) Fostering diversity and examining health disparities and social determinants of health.
“Existing health disparities have been amplified hugely by the pandemic, and people living in disadvantaged parts of the county, as well as the rest of the world, have suffered disproportionately during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
5) Working with national and international sister respiratory societies on global health issues.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent vaccine rollout have heightened awareness of the disparities in access to health care and services around the world. In response, the ATS and other organizations that are part of the Federation of International Respiratory Societies have advocated for resources to address these issues to the World Health Organization.
“That is where we have access to funding that otherwise would not be available to us to help make a change globally,” Dr. Downey said.
The initial conversations that shaped most of these goals began with the Society’s membership Assemblies.
“Our members are incredibly dedicated and enthusiastic to improve respiratory health nationally and globally, and many of these ideas have been initiated, amplified, or modified by the Assemblies. So, they speak to the priorities of our Society,” Dr. Downey noted.
Continuing a Legacy of Collaboration
With a lead-by-example philosophy as his guide as he becomes the ATS president for 2022-2023, Dr. Downey points to the ways his involvement with the organization have reverberated throughout his career. Professional relationships forged through ATS networking have been a key contributing factor to Dr. Downey’s success.
“I have met so many people whom I’ve collaborated with through the Society,” Dr. Downey said. “The only way most people can succeed is by collaborating with others, not just within their own institution, but around the country and around the world. Those connections are what the ATS has made possible for me.”
As a medical student in Winnipeg, Canada, Dr. Downey embarked on the path that would lead to respiratory medicine and his involvement with the ATS.
The University of Manitoba has been the home of some “absolute giants” in respiratory medicine, he noted, listing Reuben Cherniack, Nicholas Anthonisen, Brian Kirk, and Larry Wood. The intelligence, wit, and engaging demeanors these men demonstrated while Dr. Downey completed summer research projects and his medical degree inspired him to make pulmonary and critical care medicine a professional pursuit. ATS membership soon followed.
“I feel so fortunate to have had that group of mentors and teachers who taught me how to think critically, to find something you’re interested in, to follow your heart and your love of science and medicine,” he said.
Now, as a physician and scientist, Dr. Downey is also a patient advocate whose research priorities focus on finding solutions to clinical problems to make patients’ lives better.
“I have learned some incredible lessons from patients, seeing what they experience, what they suffer through, how they maintain positivity despite some very serious illnesses, and how they’re human,” he explained. “That shines through sometimes even in the darkest hour. It’s inspiring.”
Dr. Downey wants members to look to the future of the ATS with optimism.
“Be excited, be proud of the ATS, because it is the preeminent respiratory society in the world,” he said. “By working together, we will change respiratory health globally.”