Beth DuPree: The Good Doctor

Meet the woman who wants to revolutionize breast cancer care

By Melinda Henneberger
Dr. Beth DuPree on her last day of work at the breast cancer hospital she is determined to reopen.
Photograph: Photo by Samantha Appleton

If Beth DuPree, MD, FACS, founder of the country’s first stand-alone breast care hospital, worked as a TV anchor, she’d be saddled with the “perky blonde” label. The day we first meet, in October 2008, she downloads the abridged history of Beth Baughman DuPree in the time it takes us to walk from the waiting area to her office, a grown-up version of a princess bedroom, missing only the canopy bed. She’s running late, she says, because she’s been on the phone with her sister (DuPree is the youngest of seven kids of a York, Pennsylvania, cop and a homemaker), and over the weekend they’d had to move their parents (her mom has Alzheimer’s) out of the house they’d lived in for 46 years. So that was hard. Plus her center’s parent company has just gotten a new CEO, one of her employees has been hospitalized with chest pain, and she had to fire another for lying. “But since I’m not one of the people I’m treating, it’s a good day anyway,” she concludes with a smile.

And for those she’s treating today, it’s not as bad as it might have been. DuPree, 48, a surgeon and lecturer with a slew of awards, built this five-star, one-stop, mammo-to-mastectomy-to-reconstruction center in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, because the idea of women running to 10 different places for consultations, tests, surgery and adjuvant therapies was anathema to her. That kind of care is designed “for the convenience of hospitals, not patients,” she tells me as we reach her office. DuPree especially hates hearing from women who, after finding a lump, are forced to wait weeks to get an appointment with a surgeon at a time when a day can feel like a decade. So in April 2007, she opened her 24-bed, bricks-and-mortar alter ego in the outsize hope of redefining care for the one in eight American women who learn they have breast cancer.

It’s 8:15 AM, and DuPree has already worked out for an hour with her “NFL two-time Super Bowl guy” trainer, aka Vaughn Hebron, who may or may not have been trying to kill her with crunches; she has also learned that one of her friends from the gym has just found a breast lump. “She can’t wait around” for an appointment, DuPree tells the scheduler. At the Comprehensive Breast Care Institute, friends always go to the front of the line. But after only five minutes in DuPree’s office I am wondering if it’s possible that all her patients are her friends, because every one of them seems to go to the front of the line. “I think I can miss my workout for a 32-year-old” she tells her assistant, referring to yet another woman she wants to see squeezed in first thing tomorrow. “People need information, and they shouldn’t have to beg for it.”

While most patients are deeply grateful to get into a surgeon’s office on the same day they call about a breast lump, from a purely financial perspective, there is a downside: That kind of flexibility usually means that the doctor is not overbooked. And money, DuPree tells me, is a growing source of friction between her and her partner, Nashville-based Diversified Specialty Institutes. Although she is CEO of her hospital, DuPree says, she does not have control of the business end and she has locked horns with her partners on everything from the medical records system to whether the hospital should contract with large insurance companies. In addition, she says, DSI dragged its feet on such critical purchases as radiation equipment. And now, she tells me, given the current economic climate, her investors are beginning to panic. “This is by no means a stable situation for me yet,” she says. “But if it were easy, somebody else would have done this a long time ago.” Comprehensive Breast Care may be the first of its kind, she says, “But I don’t want it to be the last.”

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