Q&A with Hubert (Hugh) Greenway, MD


Anyone who practices Mohs micrographic surgery is likely to know the name Hugh Greenway, MD, the longtime head of Mohs and dermatologic surgery at Scripps Clinic in San Diego, who was also recently selected as program director for cutaneous oncology at Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center in San Diego. He is also a former president of the American College of Mohs Surgery.

After earning his medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia, Augusta, in 1974, Dr. Greenway was fellowship trained in Mohs skin cancer surgery by Frederic E. Mohs, MD, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He completed his dermatology residency at the Naval Medical Center San Diego and joined Scripps Clinic in 1983, where he launched the institution’s first Mohs surgery program, as well as a popular annual intensive course in superficial anatomy and cutaneous surgery that bears his name. He was also the first physician in the world to use interferon as a nonsurgical treatment of basal cell carcinoma.

Head of Mohs and dermatologic surgery at Scripps Clinic in San Diego. Courtesy Scripps Clinic

Dr. Hugh Greenway (right) joined Scripps Clinic in 1983, where he launched the institution's first Mohs surgery program.

To date, Dr. Greenway has performed more than 41,000 Mohs surgery cases and has trained 61 fellows who practice in academic and clinical settings. In 2017, he received the Frederic E. Mohs Award from the ACMS at the college’s annual meeting. He is also a past CEO of Scripps Clinic. In this Q&A, Dr. Greenway opens up about what it was like to train with Dr. Mohs, what makes a good Mohs surgeon, and why he’s excited about the future of dermatology.

I understand that you first became interested in a medical career after meeting Dr. Carl Jones, a friend of your father who was your Scoutmaster in the Boy Scouts in Georgia. What about Dr. Jones inspired you to pursue a career in medicine?

Dr. Jones was an internist/allergist in Atlanta, where I grew up. His three sons and I were friends. My dad had dealt with several medical problems being injured in World War II and subsequently undergoing a couple of kidney transplantations, so I developed an interest in medicine personally. Even though Dr. Jones was a specialist, he started out as a family doctor like I did, so he was interested in the whole person and all of his or her medical problems as opposed to those related to his specialty only. I traveled with the Boy Scouts to camp at places like Valley Forge in Pennsylvania, and Dr. Jones was involved with the medical set-ups of those large events. That also contributed to my interest in medicine.

As part of your 9-year service in the U.S. Navy, you spent 2 years as the flight surgeon at NAS Atlanta/Dobbins Air Force Base. What was your most memorable experience from that assignment?

Dobbins is a large facility with two Lockheed plants, and the Air Force had built the medical clinic, which was staffed by the Navy. Getting to know some of the active-duty members of the Air Force, the Navy, and the National Guard, and their commitment to our country, was memorable. Jimmy Carter was the president in those days. When he would fly in Dobbins, one of my jobs as the flight surgeon was to be on base when Air Force One landed or departed. One night, we had a DC-9 commercial aircraft coming from Huntsville, Ala., to Atlanta that got caught in a thunderstorm a little above 30,000 feet. Both engines went out and the aircraft essentially became a glider. The pilots tried to land on our runway but unfortunately, they ended up 4 miles short. We were heavily involved in responding to the crash, which was a tragic event. I also learned to fly (second seat) different types of aircraft during my assignment at NAS Atlanta/Dobbins Air Force Base, everything from the large C-5s to Navy fighter jets and helicopters. Coincidentally, Dr. Jones was involved with a couple of free health clinics in Atlanta when I was stationed there. Every Tuesday night, my wife (who is a nurse) and I would volunteer at a clinic in Cabbagetown, which was one of the poorer areas of Atlanta. It was a chance to give back to a group of people who didn’t have a whole lot.

In the middle your dermatology residency at Naval Medical Center San Diego, you were selected by Dr. Mohs for fellowship training in Mohs skin cancer surgery at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. What do you remember most about your training with Dr. Mohs?

Dr. Mohs was a kind, humble man who had this great idea about skin cancer. He was not a dermatologist; he was a general surgeon. The technique he developed was originally called chemosurgery because he put a chemical onto the skin. This was known as the fixed-tissue technique. Then we had a fresh-tissue technique, where we did not use the chemical, but we were able to use local anesthesia right away. That developed into the Mohs surgery we know today. Dr. Mohs did not name it that; he was very humble, but he was very proud of his technique. He was also a very hard worker. On the first day of my fellowship, I started at 7 in the morning and ended at 7 at night. It was the same for the last day of my fellowship. He also had an excellent office staff, many of whom had worked with him for many years. Patients with difficult skin cancers traveled to Madison from all over the world because there weren’t that many Mohs surgery clinics in those days. During the latter part of my fellowship, Michael McCall, MD, and I had the opportunity to remove a skin cancer from the nose of Dr. Mohs. We presented the case at a national conference, and I titled the talk “Mohs Surgery for Mohs’ Nose.”

Telemedicine is popular among Mohs surgeons – for now

Early in your career Dr. Mohs asked you to take over his practice, but you accepted an offer to establish the first Mohs surgery office at Scripps in San Diego instead. What convinced you to head West?

After my fellowship, I returned to San Diego to complete my residency with the Navy, where we opened a Mohs surgery clinic. Dr. Mohs came out for the ribbon cutting. During that time, I was taking care of several patients that he had treated in Wisconsin. Through that my wife and I ended up going to dinner with Cecil and Ida Green, philanthropists who made several financial gifts to Scripps Clinic – and for whom Scripps Green Hospital is named. Cecil cofounded Texas Instruments and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. During dinner, he suggested that I stay in San Diego for a year and work at Scripps after my residency assignment with the Navy. I agreed and have been here ever since.

What do you find most interesting about Mohs surgery?

In Mohs surgery, you’re able to provide not only surgical care to eliminate the tumor, but also the pathology and the reconstruction. That was interesting to me. Dr. Mohs was not that interested in reconstruction. He was more focused on the tumor, in part because with the original fixed-tissue technique you could not do the reconstruction. You had to wait for an extra layer of tissue to separate. But with the fresh-tissue technique, you were able to provide the reconstruction that day. Mohs surgery deals with a subset of tumors that are challenging to treat. That also spiked my academic and clinical interest.

In your opinion, what’s been the most important advance in Mohs surgery to date?

In recent years, immunology has come into play, so now we have teams of clinicians in dermatology, medical oncology, surgery, and other subspecialties providing patients the best of care. In the arena of Mohs surgery itself, in the 1980s, the American College of Mohs Surgery developed a 1-year fellowship program, which enabled us to train many men and women to practice Mohs surgery. Most of them are dermatologists.

Please complete the sentence: “You can tell a good Mohs surgeon by the way he/she ...”

Treats patients, is willing to spend time with them, and shows an interest in them. One of the things we should strive for is to let patients know that they as a person are important; it’s not just the melanoma on their nose. We’re not only dealing with a skin cancer; we’re dealing with a patient who has skin cancer.

For the past 39 years, you have led Hugh Greenway’s Superficial Anatomy and Cutaneous Surgery course, which takes place every January in San Diego. What’s been key to sustaining this training course for nearly 4 decades?

There have been many people involved in its success, so it’s not just me. When I first started my practice, there really was not a focus on anatomy in the general dermatologic community. Dermatologic surgery textbooks contained very little content on surgical anatomy so I developed an interest a putting together a course that would cover some of this material. I met with Terence Davidson, MD, an otolaryngologist who was dean of continuing medical education at the University of California, San Diego. The course includes lectures from experts in many subspecialties and hands-on laboratories using cadavers to work on anatomy and surgical techniques. After about 16 years of doing the course Dr. Davidson told me: “When we started this course, as a group, the head and neck surgeons were the best to do the reconstructions on the face with skin flaps and grafts and layered closures. But now, as a group, the dermatologists are best at doing that.” That’s what we want to hear in medical education.

During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, what were your most significant challenges from both a clinical and a personal standpoint?

I’m fortunate to practice at a place like Scripps, where there are many resources to look at what was happening with COVID-19. Clinically, we had to put a lot of things on hold, but we tried our best to keep our cancer patients in particular in the forefront of care. It has been a challenge, but fortunately we have been able to take care of patients after a brief timeout. Many of us remember the polio vaccine back in the 1950s. Having worked overseas and at missionary hospital where we had children die of measles because they were not vaccinated gave me a larger appreciation for the importance of vaccines. I recommend all young physicians who work with me to read, “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” by John M. Barry, which recounts the 1918 flu epidemic.

Who inspires you most in your work today?

I don’t view what I do as work. Dr. Jones and Dr. Mohs continue to inspire me with what they accomplished during their careers. You have to love people and love patients. Every patient who comes to see me has a story, so I try to understand their story. One of the things I really enjoy is training the young fellows. We train three Mohs fellows per year at Scripps, and it’s a great challenge every day.

What development in dermatology are you most excited about in the next 5 years?

Dermatology will continue to evolve just like all other medical specialties. We’re going to see a large growth in telemedicine, and immunotherapy is playing a key role in dermatologic oncology. What excites me the most in medicine is the young people who enter the field willing to contribute their lives to helping others.

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