Q&A with Mary K. Buss, MD, MPH
October 23rd, 2020
Mary K. Buss, MD, MPH is a practicing palliative care physician and medical oncologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center where she directs the outpatient palliative care program and is the founding Program Director for the Hospice and Palliative Medicine fellowship, run jointly with the Boston VA. Her academic focus is designing, implementing and assessing the impact of models for integrating palliative care into care of patients with cancer. She is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Why did you decide to work in palliative care?
My interest in end of life pre-dates my medical training. As an undergraduate, I designed my own major in Bio-medical Ethics. My senior thesis was on the Ethics at the End of Life. Chapter 3 focused on physician-assisted suicide; chapter 4 on euthanasia. During my medical training, I felt most at home with the sickest patients and found myself asking questions about how we cared for them, which led to my first publication – survey of medical students preparedness to discuss end-of-life issues with patients. Since palliative care had not yet been solidly established as its own specialty, I pursued oncology training with a focus on palliative care. To this day, I continue to love the opportunity to educate and guide patients with cancer through the course of their illness.
What is your favorite part of your job?
The moment when I am able to connect with a patient – or watch a fellow connect with a patient – on a deeper level. Helping patients who have been focused on their sadness and suffering find opportunity for joy and meaning – even if, or perhaps, even more so, because time is short. Patients inspire me with their strength, their kindness, their gratitude.
Are there any recent publications or projects that you’d like to highlight?
Our work examining patient perceptions about cancer-directed treatment of palliative intent was recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Oncology Practice. Our results show that, in addition to curability, patients over-estimate likelihood of response, symptom benefit and survival benefit of treatment, but accurately perceive potential risks. Patients getting immunotherapy have a greater degree of mis-perception. Such results show the need for enhancing communication with patients and oncologists, so patients can make fully informed choices about their treatment.
Tell us about your background.
The youngest of three children and the only girl in the family, I was raised with much love (aka I was spoiled) on a farm in Pennsylvania, complete with cows, chickens, pigs, a pony, a pond and a stream.
Catholic faith and a strong work ethic were core values of my upbringing that continue inform my life and my professional practice today.
In your spare time, what do you do for fun?
Outside of work, my focus is on my family – my husband and 3 girls. Even though 2 of them are teenagers, I still treasure time with my family. It's incredible to watch one’s children grow up, to be challenged by their questions and see how their passions evolve. During the pandemic, we added a dog to our family as well. Nova accompanies my youngest daughter on her walk to school. Hugs from her – especially during a time of social distancing – are always the highlight of my day.