Women's History Month Voices of Medicine: Amy Porter-Tacoronte on Challenges Worth Taking

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

This week, we’re featuring the voice of Amy Porter-Tacoronte, MBA, the Department of Medicine’s vice chair of administration and finance and its chief administrative officer. A hospital executive with more than 20 years of experience in strategic planning, change management, and operations, Porter-Tacoronte joined Duke in March 2020. She formally worked at Johns Hopkins Health System as the chief administrative officer for oncology, Mount Sinai Health System as vice president of oncology service and vice president of hospital radiology services, and with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute as vice president of operations.

 

Q: What led you to a career in medicine or your current position here at Duke? Has being a woman contributed to your journey to be here?

My mother is a source of inspiration. She started her career as a lab phlebotomist and eventually became the director of clinical labs at an academic medical center. However, it was not easy. As a single mother she often spoke of the many challenges of being one of a few black women in a leadership position at a teaching hospital.  I was inspired by her ability to navigate a career while taking care of me and my grandmother. She had a knack for solving problems and a passion for helping others. I wanted to follow in her footsteps and, possibly, serve as an inspiration to other women.

Q: With regard to the gender/racial/age identity group(s) that is most relevant to you, please talk about how your personal experiences have impacted your career.

Having been raised by four special women, my mom, grandmother (Ma), Aunt Norma, and Aunt Karen, I’ve always, most strongly, identified with being a Black woman and believe in our collective strength. Ma, the matriarch and glue of our family, often referred to race and gender as “two sides of the same coin” – connected and impossible to separate. She felt I, as a young black woman, needed to learn to view the world through both lenses in order to make good choices and determine my own future. Her favorite saying was “belief is more powerful than logic” and taught me there were many misguided people who would try to distort and redefine my identity – using contrived data and hurtful words designed to make me question my value. That all said, none of the women in my life were bitter about the challenges their race and gender presented.  Quite the opposite. Each encouraged me to embrace the challenge. I was told to be smart, do my own homework, be prepared and brave. Most importantly, I learned to understand the things I needed to improve but to love myself – no matter what.

Despite knowing who I was and what I aspired to be, growing up in the Bronx during the 1970s and 1980s was not easy – especially as a young woman. Back then, the Bronx was considered the most dangerous borough in New York. Although I was raised to be reflective of others and responsible for myself, I felt extremely vulnerable when leaving the house. In particular, the daily cat-calling I received from men twice my age was scary – it occurred on every block! I did not consider it a compliment and it made me feel sick and self-consciousness. However, most hurtful to me, was the fact that bystanders did nothing. It made me wonder if I was at fault. It was the first time, but not the last, that I would made to feel harassed by men and it was OKAY to cry about it. But, I also understood there was a time and place for that level of vulnerability – not on streets nor in the boardroom. Today, I’m dedicated to creating safe spaces in the work environment, where employees can discuss and receive support in addressing offensive conduct. Back then my Aunt Norma (who was unflinching)) and Aunt Karen (who was generous and big-hearted) guided me on when how to brush it off or stick up for myself and the Bronx became less scary.

This new confidence empowered me explore and I discovered a community of hope, endless energy, and color for me; so much like the women in my family.  I remember Co-op City, the Bronx Zoo, the Museum of Arts, Hip-Hop, Van Cortland Park, Bronx H.S. of Science (Go Spartans, go!), and Montefiore Hospital – all a part of Bronx culture. I also learned of the food deserts, saw the homeless and addicted, and the need for better access to care.

The Bronx is where I discovered my passion for service and fascination with science. Having a mother and aunts with careers in health care, as well as, an elderly grandmother, there were many discussions on the many misconceptions and unconscious bias in health care towards black women who were considered to be difficult; less likely to be truthful about their health history; and exaggerate their pain.  For me, there seemed no greater challenge than the elimination of health disparities. And, I wanted to be part of the solution. Later, as an adult with cancer, I was thankful for the access to care but recognized that access was not the guarantee that I would receive the same “quality” of care.  Bottom-line, we need more effective strategies for the recruitment, retention, and inclusion of physicians, scientists, and executive leaders from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups who can relate to and eliminate the misconceptions and barriers that cause disparities in care.

Q: With regard to your identity group(s), what are some of the strengths that you bring to your role at Duke?

In 2018, I was honored to be asked to speak at the National Comprehensive Cancer Network’s (NCCN’s) Policy Summit on Challenges and Opportunities to Address Changing Paradigms in Cancer Care Delivery. Before the conference, an ASCO reporter approached me and asked “What was an MBA doing at the podium of a clinical oncology meeting?” The reporter was genuinely curious, but it was the first time I’d ever be identified, out loud, as an “MBA”. By that time, I’d become a healthcare executive with more than 20 years of experience in strategic planning, change management, and operations. I’d received a six-sigma lean green belt; co-led the design and launch of a $350 million ambulatory center; overseen the post-merger restructure and integration of management systems for service lines in cancer and radiology; and collaborated with international partners on the development and implementation of innovative health care models.  That said, I’d never thought of myself as an “MBA”. While education is important, it is not enough. My answer to the reporter was this – as a Black woman who has survived cancer twice; is passionate about ending health disparities; and believes in team-based care – I’ve been invited to the table to discuss a much-needed shift in healthcare culture and a new care delivery model.

Today, of the four Black women who raised me, I’ve only my mom.  But, their collective strength and values continue to inspire me as I’ve learned how navigate through complex problems and systems by building relationships based on common goals and principles. I believe that I am a stronger administrator because my collaborative approach to getting the work done and willingness to take-on tough challenges

Q: Looking forward, how do you think the DOM is doing in its mission to become more inclusive? 

Working in large Academic Medical Centers in New York, Boston, and Baltimore, has not only introduced me to but allowed me to explore the structural aspects of racism in health care. Today, I’m extremely proud to be a member of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism (DEIAR) Committee. Additionally, I’m an executive sponsor for the School of Medicine’s ME² (Motivate, Mentor, Educate & Empower) Black Employee Resource Group.  While there is much work to be done, the Department of Medicine continues to lead in the creation of a new culture that is anti-racist – a department where all faculty, trainees, and students thrive. It’s a challenge worth taking on.