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Profiles in Change: Emerging Black Leaders and Influencers in Healthcare—Teri Bowles-Atherton

February 24, 2021
Trudy Sullivan, MBA

Chief Communications and Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Officer

Posted in Feature Articles

Profiles in Change: Emerging Black Leaders in Healthcare series focuses on up and coming industry leaders that are driving meaningful change, particularly in overcoming the longstanding inequities in care in our organizations and in our communities. The interviews are intended to provide insight into these leaders’ perspectives and initiatives as they share their innovative best practices for driving improvements. 

Please tell us a little about you and your background (hometown, education, past work experiences).

Teri Bowles Atherton Black Emerging Leaders

I’m a native Oregonian, having grown up in the heart of Portland.  I spent my formative years attending both public and private schools, and chose to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN where I obtained my B.S. degree in Psychology.  After deciding to change my career focus to Healthcare Administration, I returned to my roots in Portland, where I attended Portland State University in pursuit of my Master’s Degree in Public/Healthcare Administration via their EMPA program.

What is your primary focus in your current role?

I currently serve as Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for Providence St. Joseph Health’s (PSJH) Physician Division – Oregon Region.  I am responsible for the fiscal oversight of our Medical Group, including primary care, specialty care medicine and surgical specialties for the region.

How did you get interested in healthcare?

I’ve always been interested in a career in healthcare.  As a child I wanted to be a pediatrician, then obstetrician, etc., but it wasn’t until I was in college exploring all my options, that an advisor suggested that I think more broadly about healthcare.  He recognized leadership skills that could go beyond the bedside, and suggested I also consider administration (this revelation could also have been after a tough summer of taking Organic Chemistry).

What is the most significant professional challenge you are seeking to overcome this year?

In addition to maintaining and enhancing fiscal oversight of our Medical Group in these uncharted times of the pandemic, one my most significant professional challenges in 2021 is ensuring that the contributions of each of my team members is acknowledged and recognized for the ongoing high standards of performance they continue to bring to our work.  Since I worked my way through the ranks starting as a supervisor in our phlebotomy labs, I have great respect and appreciation for all levels of all of our Providence teams.

During these unusually demanding times of working remotely, it’s very important to maintain a warm, healthy human element in all of our professional interactions.  It’s important that my team feels and knows that they are valued.  As Medical Group CFO, it’s ultimately my responsibility to ensure that each of my team members is professionally and emotionally supported during these trying times. Due to our socially distant work locations, I always strive to recognize them for the innovative work they continue to perform on a daily basis. We’re all juggling challenges and coping with the rapid changes in society, and they’re doing a magnificent job.

What accomplishment in your career are you most proud of and why?

I’m most proud of the way I’ve been able to navigate a large health system and develop a career in a non traditional manner.  Though I didn’t major in Finance in college, it’s rewarding to work in an organization that has supported my growth and development through hands on experience, mentorship and exposure to the various functions of such as large organization.  I’ve also discovered some new creativity and an ability to envision the “what ifs”, and that has served me well.

There are very few mentors in Finance who look like me, so I’m glad that I can now offer professional support along with my experience and encouragement to others who may desire a mentor.

Do you have a mentor in healthcare or someone who inspires you? If yes, who and why?

I consider myself blessed to have had a few mentors over the years, both in a very traditional sense and many informally.  As of now, I have a professional mentor within PSJH, including our regional COO (formerly CFO) and several executives I consult with, look to for advice or just look up to in general.  I’ve learned that every executive has their own story and path they’ve forged to reach their current position, and that it’s important to hear their stories and glean as much as I can from them.

Inequity in healthcare has been a long-standing challenge, with the problematic outcomes glaringly apparent because of the disproportionate COVID19 infection and morbidity rates for all communities of color. Can you tell us about any initiatives you are leading in your organization or community to overcome inequity?  

I’m one of the leaders on our Providence Response Team.  Last year I was tapped by our CEO to help advise her and the organization on how best to address issues of inequity within the workforce, our region and in our local communities. It’s an ongoing work in progress.  I’ve received very encouraging feedback from individuals who have been made aware and have come to terms with the disproportionate advantages of their white privilege, and the disadvantages to minorities and others that white privilege has created.  I’m also active with our Providence Oregon Health Equity team, who’s focus is to engage the Black community in addressing health disparities to improve clinical outcomes.

Who is your favorite author? 

I have several favorite authors over several genres.  One of my favorite contemporary authors is Michelle Obama and her book “Becoming”, because she’s been such an outstanding role model for women of all ethnicities and all ages.  Another favorite author is Isabel Wilkerson who is a Pulitzer Prize Winner. Her latest book is called “Caste; The Origins of Our Discontent”.  This is a very important work because it directs Americans in particular to discover and confront the underpinnings of racism and the caste system that continues to exist in our nation.  I believe “Caste” should be required reading in colleges and universities, and especially for anyone who’s working with diversity programs within organizations.

Now on the lighter side, I’ve always appreciated the legendary poet Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken”.  In reading several of his selected poems I really liked The Road Not Taken because it gives us permission to ask what our lives might have been like if we had chosen a different road or made different major decisions in our lives.  I’ll also be keeping an eye on our wonderful new Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, who read at President Biden’s inauguration in January.

Is there one thing you are focused on in 2021 that makes you optimistic about a brighter future for all? 

I have seen so many heroic acts of charity, dedication, commitment, and personal sacrifice for others, especially among my colleagues and our healthcare workers at Providence and across the board.  This reminds me that despite all of the pandemic tragedy, and the major political upheaval, and the social injustice that has occurred, we still have our “Better Angels” within us.

I’ve seen so many new innovative ideas and creative ways of doing things as a result of having to work in the wake of a pandemic.  I’ve experienced people really coming together to work for the good of everyone.  That’s been encouraging and inspires hope for a brighter future in the ‘new normal’.

Also, importantly, I’m a person of faith.  I believe that God, the Creator of us all, will continue to guide us through life’s darkest days and greatest difficulties, if we allow Him to do so.

If you could only give one piece of advice to an up-and-coming leader in healthcare, what would it be? 

Always bring your very best to the table.  Never be afraid to ask for help, and never turn down an opportunity to help others.

Profiles in Change: Emerging Black Leaders and Influencers in Healthcare—Delinah Hailey