Strength in Numbers

The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is at the leading edge of research and treatment in the fight against cancer. CFO Karen Bird was recently tasked with finding new space to house the growing institution in order to meet patient and physician needs. Here AHL takes an in-depth look at how Bird is successfully navigating the Boston-based organization’s financials, supporting vital research through sound fiduciary infrastructure.

Karen Bird, CFO, Dana-Faber Cancer Institute

Prioritizing Funding

The Challenge: As CFO, Karen Bird sets the strategic financial vision in conjunction with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s board in five-year increments. She must work with external partners in the financial realm and keep apprised of what’s going on within the medical industry in order to maintain the institute’s growth in an era of constantly changing healthcare legislation.   

“Healthcare reform is the biggest challenge to maintaining funding,” Bird says. “There’s a lot of pressure in cost and revenue, and it can get very complicated with trends in both research funding and patient-care funding. A huge piece of my job is understanding the levers in the industry and what’s going on with our internal and external partners.”

The Solution: On the clinical side, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is focused on decreasing expensive testing and providing targeted care for patients. The finance team must help insurers understand the value of treatments that are expensive. “It’s not how much each test costs that is important, but the overall costs of treatments compared to the outcomes in care that they provide,” Birds says of closing the gap in understanding treatment efficacy between insurers and providers. “We’re at the cutting edge of cancer science, so we know what the evidence supports.”

In order to make sure Dana-Farber has sufficient funding resources, Bird works closely with internal partners to prioritize where funds are spent. “It’s a balancing act to figure out what those priorities are,” she says.  In a time of such exciting progress in cancer research, the demand for more treatment centers has never been higher. Therefore, Bird must help the organization decide which projects have the biggest-possible impact for patient and research outcomes.

The Outcome: “One project everyone is talking about is precision medicine,” says Bird, referencing the targeted therapy plan for patients that uses genome testing to understand specific genes and the appropriate chemotherapy that can potentially “turn off” cancer. This therapy is one place the institute is investing its money heavily, with very exciting results. For example, in lung-cancer research, cancer genes have already been identified that can be turned off by certain drugs.

It is part of the institute’s academic mission to discover effective cancer treatments, and its research is helping doctors use evidence-based medicine to make gains in the fight against cancer. “We are betting on finding more and more of those gene therapies,” Bird says. “It’s an appropriate use of resources.”

Creating Space for Research

The Challenge: Not surprisingly, Dana-Farber’s research needs have grown dramatically over the last few years, requiring an investment in lab space. Bird allows that creating space for the research can be an even bigger challenge than finding the funding. “Without the right staff and equipment, it doesn’t matter how much money you have,” she says. “In order to keep moving, we needed to find a lot of additional space.” And space is scarce in the area near Dana-Farber.

The Solution: Dana-Farber found the perfect place to expand when a developer opened up a building across the street. The institute was able to lease 150,000 square feet of space to meet the needs of the research program, mainly focused on the exciting advances in chemical and genetic biology. “The building features state-of-the-art equipment and an open floor plan that is more efficient than traditional spaces,” Bird says. “The space is modular and allows repositioning of instruments based on project needs.” The money for the $70 million improvement plan was raised through a combination of fund-raising dollars and the issuance of debt.

The Outcome: The new research center is proving to not only be more efficient, but it also allows researchers to collaborate more effectively than before—when teams were spread out across different institutions. “Researchers need to bump into each other to cross-pollinate ideas, and they have the opportunity to work more closely now,” Bird says of the intellectual environment in the new research space. “It’s a great synergy, and we’re very pleased with the results.”

And those results have only strengthened the work being done by Dana-Farber’s doctors, researchers, and administrators, who are focused on fighting cancer. “I have a lot of pride to be one small piece of a huge team,” Birds says. “The research advances are really remarkable, and I feel lucky to support that work.”

Photo by Sam Ogden