Cancer Center Medical Director Tom Purcell brings corporate, medical experience

By Todd Neff

For a distilled description of Tom Purcell’s career path, just reverse the order of his titles.

Tom Purcell, MD, MBA

Tom Purcell, MD, MBA, associate director of clinical services for the University of Colorado Cancer Center. Photo by Todd Neff.

Officially, the University of Colorado Cancer Center’s new executive medical director and associate director for clinical services goes by W. Thomas Purcell, MD, MBA. Historically, however, Purcell’s path was first business, then medicine.

In his latest role, which he started on May 15, Purcell will be balancing the two. On the one hand, he will be treating gastrointestinal, lung cancer and Phase I clinical trial patients; on the other, he will focus on strategy, process improvement and deciding how to exploit the Cancer Center’s clinical and operational potential in the context of University of Colorado Health.

Purcell, 48, arrived from Billings, Mont., with a blue-chip résumé: medical school at Emory University; internships and residency at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School (he was chief resident there); and a Johns Hopkins fellowship in medical oncology. After completing the fellowship, he stayed on as a faculty member at Johns Hopkins before taking the job leading the Billings Clinic Cancer Center.

The move was a major transition, he said. “I was a busy GI oncology faculty member at Hopkins and then I went to Montana to become a community cancer center director,” Purcell recalled in an easygoing drawl from his native Mississippi. “Most people were like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’”

Corporate roots

But Purcell saw an opportunity to build and lead a multidisciplinary cancer center, and over the next seven years, he proceeded to do just that, hiring 10 physicians and expanding the practice tenfold, all the while caring for his own patients. The Billings Clinic became a National Cancer Institute Community Cancer Center.

By 2010, Purcell was leading not only the cancer center, but was also a division chief for cardiovascular, neuroscience, musculoskeletal, women and children and other service lines. It was a strategic role that fit right into Purcell’s background and skills.

You see, if adaptability and curiosity trumped convention, the result would be W. Thomas Purcell, MBA, MD. Purcell was working on a mishmash of technical undergraduate degrees – majors in chemistry and physics, minors in computer science and math – and was a lineman on the football team at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., when his mom died. He was 19 at the time, and from then on, he felt he had to fend for himself. When he graduated in 1985, he hired into the global IT consulting firm now known as Accenture.

He excelled, rising quickly and learning the finer points of project management, software development, client service, business strategy and systems and process reengineering. He was a rising star, so much so that the company helped pay for an MBA at the University of Chicago. Purcell was in a seminar with Nobel Prizewinning economist Merton Miller – a great class, he recalled – but was already straying from the business path. In addition to the full MBA load, he was taking premed courses.

“The biochemistry guy I had was unbelievable,” he said, words few MBA students have ever uttered. He returned to Accenture, sold a big job, and then, at age 28, started medical school and never looked back.

Back to school

His move to Denver from Billings followed another stark transition. Exhausted after almost eight years building the Billings Clinic Cancer Center program, Purcell dialed back in 2010, becoming an associate professor in the Master of Physician Assistant Studies Program at Rocky Mountain College. The idea was to recharge through teaching, coaching and working with young people. A certified strength and conditioning coach, Purcell served in that role for the football, basketball and volleyball teams.

But he missed academic medicine, and leaped at the chance to interview for his current post, which had been vacant since Fred Kolhouse, MD, died in June 2010.

Purcell is the right man for the job, said Andrew Thorburn, PhD, the Cancer Center’s deputy director.

“He has exactly the drive and personality and the background and chops to take us to the next level in our clinical care and, in combining clinical research with clinical care, to really maximize the benefit to patients,” Thorburn said.

From his office on the fifth floor of the newly renovated and expanded Anschutz Cancer Pavilion, Purcell and his team are making up for lost time, doing SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analyses and business planning. They’ve already outlined projects to improve patient scheduling, reduce wait times for infusion patients and sharpen customer service.

“Right now, we compete against a private practice model, where a patient drives up after parking 20 feet away, gets blood drawn, sees a doc with the results 20 minutes later, gets their chemotherapy or radiation, and is out the door in an efficient way,” Purcell said. “So operational efficiency is my number-one goal.”

His IT consulting experience also positions him to assess and smooth the transition to the Cancer Center’s upcoming (July 24) switch to the Epic electronic medical record. It’s going to be a detailed conversion, among other reasons because of the need to seamlessly switch ongoing chemotherapy drug protocols from the old system to Epic’s Beacon oncology program, Purcell says.

Purcell aims to optimize the clinical aspects of cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment to follow-up – not just at the Cancer Center, but also across the new University of Colorado Health network, which includes Poudre Valley Hospital and Medical Center of the Rockies. He sees the Cancer Center as being positioned strategically, clinically, and operationally to make the leap into the highest echelons of cancer care.

“The reason I’m here is I see tremendous upside potential. There are incredible people here and it is a real privilege to be a part of it,” Purcell said, adding, jokingly, “I wanted to say ‘TWD… world domination,’ because that’s what I’m really thinking.”


This article was first published in the UCH Insider. To subscribe to the UCH Insider, send an email to