Teresa Tonthat remembers her first day at Texas Children’s Hospital, where she’d been hired as the director of information security. It came after an oil and gas career that spanned sixteen years, took her to six of the seven continents, and grew an audit professional into an innovative leader in both audit, risk, and IT functions.
“I remember my first day at Texas Children’s while getting into an elevator and someone asking me to hold the lift,” Tonthat recalls. “It was a father and his young child who was in a wheelchair and had an oxygen tank. I was so taken aback. In seventeen years of corporate work, I’ve met with my customers, but they were never these types of stakeholders. It didn’t take me long to understand that the mission for healthcare, specifically for children and women, is just not comparable to anything else.”
Tonthat jokes that anywhere else, you can implement new IT solutions that enable business objectives all day long, but how many industries can say that whatever you’re focusing on, it’s inevitably going to help save children’s lives? “I knew I had made the right decision to come to healthcare,” she says.
An Investment Center
Since coming to Texas Children’s four years ago, Tonthat has risen quickly in her organization. She was promoted to assistant vice president of IT, and then to her current dual role: vice president of IT and chief information security officer.
That rise, Tonthat says, can be attributed to continuous mentorship from her leadership, building a strong resilient leadership team, and the strong culture at an organization that sees value in technology and cybersecurity.
“People might say that the word innovation doesn’t really go well with controls and rigorous governance processes, but somehow we make it happen,” she explains. “I feel a lot of that has to do with the executive leadership team really understanding that we are not a cost center. We are viewed as an investment center, sought out for insights. We provide solutions instead of the organization coming to us with a solution that they want implemented. We always strive to do what’s right and strike a balance of risk vs. reward.”
Tonthat has felt empowered by Chief Information and Innovation Officer Myra Davis, who has helped grow Tonthat’s role and bring her to the executive leadership team. “Myra is not only my boss but has been a great mentor to me since I’ve joined her leadership team,” she explains.
Biomedical engineering, historically part of the operations organization, was brought under Tonthat’s purview as part of a broader effort to innovate and modernize the way services are delivered to the organization. “We have about 46,000 medical devices that touch our patients, and almost 10,000 of those are connected for interoperability, so it makes sense to bring biomed engineering into IT,” the VP says. “Biomedical engineering has always been viewed as skilled technicians repairing devices, and my challenge is to find opportunities to modernize the great work our people do. We also need to have a seat at the table and bring innovative healthcare technology solutions to our clinical partners and physicians.”
Tonthat’s colleagues outside the hospital have been impressed by her efforts. “Teresa’s unique approach to building partnerships that benefit all involved will have a long-term impact on Texas Children’s Hospital and those they serve,” says Len Noble, executive sales director for the IT company Netsync. “Her collaborative approach ensures outcomes that provide both financial and operational value for her organization. We truly appreciate Teresa and are thankful for our partnership.”
Ahead of the Curve
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge for everyone in healthcare, but Tonthat says that the foresight demonstrated by Texas Children’s helped put them ahead of the curve. The organization’s telehealth and e-health effort was already in working order when the pandemic hit, it just needed to be ramped up exponentially.
In 2019, there were approximately one thousand telehealth appointments. From February 2020 to December 2021, there have been more than three hundred thousand telehealth appointments—a massive increase.
“I’m so proud of the cross-functional teams that were able to stand up command centers and help desk centers for our physicians, schedulers, and patient families,” Tonthat says. “Not everyone uses the same type of personal devices, and we were able to walk our patients through those potential frustrations or anxieties of using their technology.”
Tonthat also credits technology services partner ePlus, whose partnership and ahead-of-the-curve efforts helped make moving more than five thousand employees home to work a secure and efficient process. A staging room full of new laptops (outfitted with the extensive security requirements required) was stood up quickly.
“Knock on wood,” Tonthat says. “We didn’t have one incident during the surge to virtual working, but I can tell you that there has been a lot of attempts and scanning of our environment from bad actors.”
The issues that Texas Children’s has to solve are varied, and Tonthat has worked with ePlus on multiple fronts. “Meteorological disruption has been a constant in the southeast Texas region, which challenged the ePlus teams to collaborate, adapt, and innovate in near real-time with Teresa and her teams to support TCH’s mission,” says Lisa Neal, an ePlus senior account executive.
The Planning and People for Every Scenario
In October of 2020, a US Joint Cyber Security Advisory was issued alerting healthcare and public health sector institutions of a credible threat of ransomware and other targeted attacks. The University of Vermont Medical Center was taken offline for nearly a month, while a dozen other hospitals were also knocked offline with countless other reporting breaches.
Texas Children’s was not one of those systems, but Tonthat says that’s not because they weren’t targeted. Just like organizations that do active shooter simulations, cyberattack simulations need to be taken seriously, she says, because patient lives are on the line.
“Every year, we get our leadership team and our front-line nursing colleagues together—over a hundred leaders—to simulate the hospital’s technology systems going dark,” Tonthat says. “There are so many things to consider that you just can’t imagine. I’m not sure if any healthcare organization has simulated downtime procedures for not having access to their electronic medical record system, business solutions, corporate email, or internet for more than a day.”
This proactive and ever-evolving approach is a reflection of the team that Tonthat has built, encompassing not just healthcare professionals, but a diverse swath of technology professionals.
“We have a diverse team of leaders, and I believe it’s important to keep having pioneering-types of conversations with outside industries that allows us to really differentiate our service,” Tonthat explains. “Compared with other hospitals, I think our leadership development is also of the same caliber.”
Texas Children’s has employed the company GiANT to conduct leadership coaching and help unite diverse leaders in styles that are best suited for each and every individual.
“It’s been nothing but beneficial to help us become stronger leaders and is continued proof of the investment that this organization is making in its current and future leaders,” Tonthat says. “The executive team supports leadership development at all levels, because we know how instrumental it has been for us all.”