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.