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Heart to heart

What leads a healthcare practitioner in open-heart surgery to work in the heart of business as an operations executive?​

The Interview

Theresa Gaffney has been interested in healthcare since she was a teenager, when she regularly volunteered at local hospitals. In this Outlook interview, the Healthcare Business Process Services (BPS) offering lead for Accenture Operations discusses why she moved from the clinical world to the business world, the changes she’s seen in healthcare and technology, and why BPS was so attractive to someone with deep industry expertise.

Outlook: You’ve had a fascinating career. You started out as a practicing nurse, and now, as the Healthcare BPS lead, you’re one of the leaders of a $5 billion business.

THERESA GAFFNEY: It’s been an interesting journey, one that took me in directions I didn’t originally foresee. I’ve always had a focus on health and the sciences. In high school, I spent every other weekend working in hospitals. At the University of Massachusetts, I majored in nursing and minored in biology. I began my career as a nurse working in open-heart surgery and the intensive care unit at two of Boston’s Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals.

So you intended to become a clinical nurse?
Here is one of those unexpected turns. When I was in college, there were really only three careers available to women: teaching, social work and nursing. My original intention was to move directly from university to graduate school, with the goal of becoming a researcher and professor of nursing. But I got some very strong advice from several professors, telling me that would be a big mistake—that practical, clinical work was important to my growth.

Were they right?
Yes, I’d have to say they were. Moving up the ladder in any profession really begins with a deep knowledge of what’s happening on the front lines.

Eventually, you did become a researcher.
After a couple years, I became a bit disillusioned about staff nursing. This was a time of intense, rapid change in the healthcare field—including the impact of AIDS and hepatitis on the nation’s blood supply.

But then I was asked to create the clinical research capability for the open-heart-surgery team at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. This was an opportunity to help create something that was going to leave a mark and truly help the organization. We were embarking on a mission to conserve blood in a type of surgery that typically drains blood supplies. That was really important to me.

How did you become interested in business?
I began to develop business acumen and interest in part because I was in charge of writing grant proposals for our work, which focused on improving blood conservation during surgery. And frankly, research was a bit of a solitary profession, and I’m more gregarious than that. So I started to look outside the hospital.

I moved into the medical device world, working with some very hot devices related to intensive care. Then I worked at Genentech, with a brand-new product in the field of recombinant DNA technology—very exciting stuff.

And then you made a jump into the consulting world.
Yes. My company wanted me to take a job in California, but my husband is a lobbyist and couldn’t move away from Massachusetts. So I looked for a different job in the area.

I applied to a global tech company and told them up front, “I don’t really have a background in IT.” They said, “That’s okay—we have plenty of people who know IT, but we don’t have people who really know healthcare.” I worked there as a healthcare industry subject-matter expert for 14 years.

Oh, yes—somewhere in there I also took a couple years off to acquire an MBA.

And then you came to Accenture.
I knew that Accenture had really gone deep into organizations and their processes, and had made some big bets on health BPS.

What interested you about BPS?
At every stage of my career, emphasis was always placed on doing things more effectively. To me, BPS is one of the most natural ways we can take back-office costs out of healthcare, by taking away many administrative burdens and running processes in better ways. BPS can bring clinical work, research, healthcare and technology together into a whole that’s greater than the sum of the parts.

You must have seen lots of changes in healthcare and technology.
And clinical care. There wasn’t really even an intensive care unit in the United States until the mid-1960s. And, of course, there were no computers until the early ’80s. Just consider one example: the ability to do drug discovery faster with computers—the evolving technology has had a massive effect on healthcare.

Like electronic medical records, and using the cloud for additional storage.
It makes a ton of sense. When people talk about the cloud, they are concerned about data security. But the regulatory environment of the healthcare industry means that data security and privacy are already in play. We can manage data in a cloud environment—the cloud can be a safe place.

Are there parallels between a healthcare environment and a business environment?
Sometimes businesses suffer from an operational illness. As diagnosticians, we see what’s wrong and know how to fix it. When we are in charge of millions of transactions or access points, we’re really at the heart of operations, so every second counts.

Are your management skills more important to you now than your healthcare skills?
No, those are both essential. Whether approaching patients or clients, you have to be very plan-focused. No matter what kind of work you’re in, you have to plan your work and you have to work your plan.

Has anyone at Accenture ever called you on the phone and said, “Theresa, we need you in the conference room, stat!”
[Laughs] Not yet.

What keeps you busy when you’re not being an Accenture managing director?
My husband and I play a lot of golf, and we are active in a number of charities that are near and dear to my heart because they help support aspects of healthcare research.

I also run a bridge group for the elderly. What’s interesting is that a couple of our members have Alzheimer’s. People who started playing bridge when they were young can continue playing bridge, even with Alzheimer’s. It’s pretty amazing to watch.

What advice would you give to those first starting out in their careers?
I tell my younger colleagues that the saying about following your passion is really true. Because once you find it, you’ll be able to bring that passion into almost anything you’re doing.

Theresa Gaffney is the Global Offering Lead, Health Business Process Services. She is based in Boston.

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