In the spotlight: Dr. Coleen Cunningham

Dr. Coleen Cunningham’s family has long joked that she knew she wanted to be a pediatrician before she was born. By eighth grade, she was certain that she’d work in pediatrics – and she never looked back.

“Kids are just wonderful,” she says. “They’re always a pleasure to be around – how could you ever not want to help a child?”

Today, she serves as both senior vice president and pediatrician-in-chief at CHOC and chair for the UCI Department of Pediatrics. In this unique dual role, which she began in March, Dr. Cunningham acts as a senior clinical leader with oversight responsibility for CHOC’s vast pediatric medical and surgical services, academic advancement, research and teaching programs.

Dr. Coleen Cunningham, senior vice president and pediatrician-in-chief at CHOC and chair for the UCI Department of Pediatrics

“The big job here is integrating our two institutions, CHOC and UCI, and learning how we can align better,” says Dr. Cunningham.

In this role, she explains, she works as a liaison between physicians and administration, which allows her to communicate the patient care needs from the standpoint of a physician to administration, and vice versa. She will also be overseeing the medical education components, so that both entities can ensure they are recruiting and providing the best trainees, residents and fellows.

“As an insider at both CHOC and UCI, I understand what the issues are, but I’m also able to speak for both teams,” she says. “I can take a step back and advocate for the group as a whole. This is a new perspective, but it affords each institution the room to adjust and align.”

Most recently, Dr. Cunningham served as professor with tenure at Duke University in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and as chief of Global Health and vice chair for research in the Department of Pediatrics. She held secondary appointments in the Department of Pathology at Duke and the Duke Global Health Institute.

She earned her medical degree from the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY, where she also did her residency in pediatrics and a fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases. At SUNY, she served as an associate professor of pediatrics and started a pediatric HIV clinic.

Her work on HIV and AIDS in children has been recognized numerous times and is one of the stand-out moments of her career.

“When I started my job, I was telling mothers that their baby had HIV,” she says. “I would be crying alongside them, because at the time, there wasn’t much we could do. Today, when babies are diagnosed, they can be effectively treated – they can live to be 60 or 70, and we get to tell their parents that they’re going to lead a normal life. Seeing that evolve over the course of my career has been very rewarding.”

Dr. Cunningham has published more than 140 manuscripts and led many multicenter clinical trials aimed at the treatment and prevention of HIV infection in children. The progress that has been made in treating HIV, she says, reinforces the importance of integrating clinical care and research.

“Driving the best care for tomorrow requires integrating research and data analysis into our patient care environment, saying ‘Can I improve? Can I do it better?’” says Dr. Cunningham.

Her goal at CHOC, she says, is making research visible.

“CHOC already provides exceptional, top-notch medical care to children,” says Dr. Cunningham. “And if people heard about some of the incredible things we’re doing here, they’d be amazed. We want to lead the nation in care, but we also need to make that care more visible and teach others how to follow suit.”

Her drive to teach extends beyond her role with CHOC and has long been one of her passions. A few years ago, she was recognized as a top mentor by Duke, and she continues to actively mentor several junior faculty at the university.

“I love watching my mentees come into their own, fly and go beyond what I can do – it’s like having more kids,” says the mother of five. “I get excited to watch them grow and move their career in the direction they want it to go.”

Dr. Cunningham’s ultimate goals at CHOC are to fully and successful integrate the health system and UCI; develop the physicians, including the physician-scientists at both institutions; and enhance CHOC’s national reputation.

Once she has accomplished that, she says, she has only two things she wants to focus on: her garden and her grandchildren.