Deb O’Brien is the vice president and chief operating officer at The Providence Center, but she didn’t begin her journey in business school; she started as a nurse. A lifelong Rhode Islander, Deb has been at TPC for over 20 years and has been in the psych field for over 30.
Deb’s interest in health care started at the age of 12, when her father passed away from a heart attack at age 41 and she decided she wanted to help people live a healthier life. When she was in high school, her mother was a nursing assistant in a pediatrician’s office, where Deb started working with physicians to help with cardiac research. “I had mentioned that I wanted to work in health care, and the pediatrician convinced me that nursing was a great career that I’d be good at.”
She enrolled in the nursing program at the University of Rhode Island, and worked as a nursing assistant at Rhode Island Hospital on weekends starting in her sophomore year. After graduation, Deb started her career as a staff nurse there, where she stayed for a year and a half. Deb had enjoyed her nursing school psych rotation at Butler Hospital, and decided she wanted to switch into the field. “My friends had always told me I was a good listener, and I noticed people generally don’t talk about their problems. I wanted to help people shape their lives differently and communicate about their issues.”
She started at South Shore Mental Health Center in Charlestown as a staff nurse and worked her way up to management roles in various departments, including Psychiatric Services, Rehab Services and the Emergency and Assessment Service Team. She also worked to get South Shore accredited with the Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) and helped implement a centralized intake system. When she went into psych, Deb also wanted to keep up her medical training, so she worked part-time at Hospice for four years.
While at South Shore, Deb decided to pursue her master’s degree in public administration at the University of Rhode Island. “I was always drawn to leadership roles and at that point I felt I had a strong clinical foundation, but I wanted to strengthen my business skills.”
Her experience with accreditation brought her to The Providence Center, and after getting the Center accredited, she started looking for ways to improve clinical care. She was named chief program officer in 2004, and became chief operating officer in 2009 once she started overseeing non-clinical programs like billing and facilities. She became the vice president in 2012. Because of her nursing background, Deb is the de-facto chief nursing officer for The Providence Center, and she has also been involved with a number of boards and professional affiliations, including URI’s Nursing Advisory Board and About Families, Inc.
Deb actively encourages nurses to seek out leadership positions and has found that the nursing field provides very practical training for an executive role. “The two biggest skill sets that nursing imparts are the ability to multi-task and prioritize, which are extremely helpful for most jobs. But while you’re doing all that, you also learn how to see the bigger picture as it relates to the whole patient, which is a crucial aspect of management.”
The knowledge and leadership skills Deb learned as a nurse have helped The Providence Center become an innovator in behavioral health care management nationwide. Her advice for nurses who want to move up: “Understand that health care is a business, and know the importance of data management when it comes to treatment practices, especially as population health moves forward. It’s something they don’t teach you in nursing school.”