The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.
Julie Principe’s path in health care has taken her down multiple avenues: from being a bedside nurse straight out of school, to transitioning to ambulatory care, to then moving onto managing the nursing department of the psychiatry unit at Rhode Island Hospital.
She was just about to finish grad school, busy with her career and being a young, single mom, when her mentor asked how she felt about being a director in a cancer care unit.
“I had never experienced anything like it in my 20-year career,” she said during a recent phone interview. “It’s really where the patient is at the center of everything.”
That was in 2016 when Principe was recruited to Lifespan’s Cancer Institute. She oversaw clinics, infusion centers, radiation therapy, planning for the institute’s new cancer center in Lincoln, and has been involved in plans to pursue National Cancer Institute designation for the Legorreta Cancer Center of The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.
But earlier this month, Principe was promoted to vice president of the LCI, making her one of the most senior leaders at Rhode Island Hospital — the state’s largest hospital with the only Level 1 Trauma Center.
As a native Rhode Islander, the news of her promotion validated her work — and the struggles she faced in the earlier years of her career.
“I walked out of the hospital and FaceTimed my son. I was overwhelmed with joy. I was excited to lead this program. But also, as a young parent of a young man (she is now 45 and her son is 25), being able to send him to college, and essentially growing up with him, that joy was two-fold.”
She added, “I’ve always tried to lead by example for my son to see.”
Q: You have a life story that many Rhode Islanders could personally connect with. How do you motivate others that there’s a space for them in leadership positions, too?
Principe: When I came to the Cancer Institute, I was approached by the workforce development department at Lifespan and was asked if I would host interns. But I was also asked if I was interested in speaking to the cohort of medical assistant interns while they were going through their own training. I did and learned that many of these young ladies and men were also young parents and they had their own struggles. I wanted them to know — and to show them — that if you believe, you can achieve this. I started sharing my own story and how being a young mom and a single parent was really tough, it wasn’t easy, but I had believed in myself. Saying “no” is just an excuse on your own accountability.
I feel like there’s a huge opportunity for people to share their own personal stories, give back, and really be able to afford people in the Providence community to get their foot in the door [at Lifespan or elsewhere] and grow.
Q: What are some of your duties at the Institute?
Principe: I’m charged with continuing to expand the program and reach folks throughout the state that might not be able to get the services they need in their own town or don’t want to travel all the way to Providence. I want to expand access to provide services with the same standard of care as our main Providence campus. We’ll grow our population-based research and focus on social determinants.
Also, as a nurse, I want to grow this profession. I’m encouraging other nurses to go back to school and get a master’s degree because it’s really what is driving this career path.
Q: Cancer patients had the opportunity to access survivorship programs more than ever during the pandemic thanks to telehealth. But how are you expanding those programs further?
Principe: Our Lincoln satellite site now has additional survivors clinics, which is called OWL (oncology, wellness, and lifestyle), which is fairly new. We’re also hiring a “cancer coach” who is a survivor herself. She works directly with patients to understand how important it is to stay active and is really there for them for their needs. And that’s a program I want to grow.
Q: You’re also part of the team seeking NCI designation.
Principe: We’re still in the ‘beginning’ phase of this journey. As of 2019, there were 51 comprehensive cancer centers, 13 cancer centers, and seven basic lab cancer centers that have this designation. If we were to receive NCI designation in Rhode Island, it would put us in the top 4 percent of approximately 700 cancer centers across the country. It’s a partnership with Brown University, but I’m helping create that framework.
Q: And even with this designation, how can we make sure that Rhode Islanders get their cancer care here, but also believe that it’s the best care?
Principe: Right now, I believe we have one of the best programs in the Northeast. Even if you go out to the West Coast and name some of our providers, they are well known and have a good reputation. But we haven’t marketed it to folks as much — which we probably should be — that this is a premiere program. You don’t have to leave the state for your cancer care. Everything that’s offered over the Rhode Island border is something we are offering here from medical and radiation oncology, our research program, our lab, and all the services that support the patients during and after their treatments.