Thomas Kawalec Of Accenture, Global Life Sciences MedTech: How AI Is Disrupting Our Industry, and What We Can Do About It

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Drive continuous reinvention — Foster a culture of continuous reinvention and build the capability, approach and tools that enable companies to adapt and innovate while maintaining day-to-day operations.

Artificial Intelligence is no longer the future; it is the present. It’s reshaping landscapes, altering industries, and transforming the way we live and work. With its rapid advancement, AI is causing disruption — for better or worse — in every field imaginable. While it promises efficiency and growth, it also brings challenges and uncertainties that professionals and businesses must navigate. What can one do to pivot if AI is disrupting their industry? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Thomas Kawalec.

Tom Kawalec is a Managing Director in Accenture’s Life Sciences Practice bringing over 30 years of consulting experience including the management of Accenture’s global partnerships with some of the world’s largest Life Sciences companies. Tom specializes in Enterprise Reinvention, New Business Models, Digital Products and Services, and creating effective Customer Centric Operating Models and Digital Capabilities for large scale business-to-business companies within Life Sciences and Healthcare. Tom has years of prior experience in the Travel, Consumer Goods and Telecommunications industries.

As the Global Life Sciences MedTech, Tom has responsibility for leading Accenture’s support for its clients within this segment globally. This includes driving the growth strategy, innovation, offerings and services, and people development. In this role, Tom is also part of Accenture’s Global Life Sciences Leadership Team, setting strategy and priorities, and nurturing the global Life Science practitioners.

Tom is passionate about speeding innovative, safe and effective medical technology and pharmaceutical products to market and using digital technology to improve healthcare practitioner and patient experiences. Through his work collaborating with the world’s leading companies to leverage digital technology, Tom has firsthand experience navigating existing policies and regulations on a global scale.

Tom holds a B.S. in Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology and an Executive MBA Program Certificate from Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. He resides in the Chicago area with his wife and four daughters.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Joining Accenture marked the commencement of my professional journey following my undergrad, although it was not my first employment. I was eager to apply my aerospace studies in a consulting framework rather than traditional engineering, which led me into the consulting field. Initially, I was involved in large-scale ERP systems, working with our proprietary software solutions that were used by major defense contractors. From there, I transitioned into a role where, along with a small team, I leveraged our industry experience from software implementation to develop consulting assets and build a stronger management consulting practice. We also began to externalize our software expertise into the broader enterprise software market, collaborating with leading ERP providers like JDE, Baan and creating the first industry template for SAP, as well as venturing into other areas including the initial forays into Customer Relationship Management and Accenture’s earliest Digital practices, upon the emergence of the internet

My career at Accenture has allowed me to explore various industries and functional areas, which eventually led me to focus on life sciences. There, I managed significant customer-centric transformations across various disciplines. This was a time when the biopharmaceutical industry was evolving from a traditional sales rep model to a more diverse commercial strategy. I spearheaded pioneering projects with key clients in this area for about eight years, which naturally exposed me to collaboration across healthcare and specifically medical technology, where I have been engaged for over twenty years now. This journey has not only been a testament to my professional growth but also a personal journey of learning, adapting, and innovating in an ever-evolving industry landscape.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Accenture has always been synonymous with change, a theme that resonates deeply with the current landscape of AI and disruption. Since joining Accenture, I’ve witnessed firsthand how AI and disruption signify monumental changes, not only within the MedTech industry where I specialize but also in the broader spectrum of how people lead their lives. At its core, Accenture possesses a fundamental DNA focused on identifying necessary changes and helping our clients navigate through them. This ability to address and drive change, together with our culture of shared success and commitment to creating 360° value, enables us to help our clients reinvent and build trusted, lasting relationships.

Over the past 33 years, my experience with Accenture has been enriching, as we have continuously enhanced our capabilities to understand, effect, and drive change across our client’s businesses. This evolution has included expanding our operations, digital services, and strategy and consulting sectors, enabling us to operate comprehensively across all facets that, envision it, affect it, enable it, and then operate within it.

You are a successful business leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Certainly, while there are many traits that contribute to success in business, one particularly crucial characteristic for me has been a relentless commitment to learning and innovation. Throughout my career, I’ve adopted what I describe as a dual-footed approach: one foot is always rooted in areas where I excel, allowing me to leverage my strengths and deliver exceptional results. Simultaneously, I place the other foot in unfamiliar territories that push my boundaries and necessitate learning.

This approach has not only fueled my personal and professional growth but has also been integral in shaping the way I lead and mentor others within our organization and among our clients.

For instance, I encourage our team members to embrace challenges that stretch their capabilities, which fosters a culture of continuous improvement, innovation, and growth.

Let’s now move to the main point of our discussion about AI. Can you explain how AI is disrupting your industry? Is this disruption hurting or helping your bottom line?

In today’s MedTech landscape, generative AI is revolutionizing healthcare by catering to the demand for real-time, personalized medical care. Accenture’s latest report, which surveyed 800 U.S. patients, shows a massive 94% engagement with health management devices and apps, underscoring the shift towards technology-driven solutions that enhance patient engagement and improve care efficiency. With AI’s growing influence, there is now a shift in priorities to the highest levels of management and board oversight. Companies are being urged to develop clear, effective strategies for AI integration, highlighting its critical role and broad impact. This marks a key moment where AI’s potential to drive significant enterprise-wide change is fully recognized and prioritized.

For MedTech leaders, the future involves embracing these innovations through strategic actions such as leading with value, reinventing talent management, and developing a secure, AI-enabled digital core. These steps are essential for navigating the complexities of modern healthcare and ensuring sustainable growth and enhanced patient outcomes in the era of generative AI.

Which specific AI technology has had the most significant impact on your industry?

I’m truly excited to discuss the transformative impact of AI with our clients, especially the advancements in generative AI, which is reshaping our approach to tasks across various sectors. This technology, driven by sophisticated language models, is a major force in today’s market. As we expand our understanding, we’re exploring beyond basic business intelligence applications to include predictive analytics and advanced machine learning models that enhance the breadth of AI capabilities. It’s also crucial to recognize AI’s established role in the MedTech industry, particularly in medical and imaging diagnostics. With over 880 FDA-approved AI/ML enabled medical devices, and more than 80% of those in medical imaging alone, AI has long been instrumental in enhancing the accuracy and quality of medical imaging. This technology supports technicians and radiologists in a range of ways from precise equipment positioning to ensuring optimal scan results. While generative AI captures current attention, the ongoing integration of AI in medical technology over the past decade continues to significantly advance our capabilities and will fundamentally change medical technology and its use in provided care.

Can you share a pivotal moment when you recognized the profound impact AI would have on your sector?

I am incredibly passionate about advancing innovations that allow us to predict and improve what happens within the human body. This passion is fueled by a vision where technology not only supports healthcare providers in navigating their financial and staffing challenges but also plays a crucial role in enhancing the quality-of-care patients receive. I recall several pivotal moments that underscored the profound impact AI would have on healthcare. One of the most compelling examples of this transformative power was when we recently assisted a client in identifying individuals at greater risk of heart failure. The ability to foresee such health issues and intervene early — before they escalate into more severe conditions — demonstrated how technology can transcend its traditional role. It shifts from being a tool for operational efficiency to becoming a proactive force in preventing health problems and improving overall patient outcomes.

What’s striking is the bigger picture in which Accenture is taking part. Many healthcare providers are still struggling to get back to their financial state before COVID hit, and they’re facing a huge shortage of staff. In such a tough spot, the game-changer is using technology to augment the workforce and enhance how care is delivered. Take, for instance, our work that’s transforming how tumor boards handle cancer cases with the help of AI and workflow tech. These are real, impactful changes.

How are you preparing your workforce for the integration of AI, and what skills do you believe will be most valuable in an AI-enhanced future?

At Accenture, we are dedicated to enhancing the organizational skills of our clients, beginning with foundational data literacy and progressing to more sophisticated areas such as artificial intelligence and generative AI. We have established partnerships with leading institutions like Stanford, MIT, and Wharton to create advanced training programs for our own people and tailored for their executives. Our commitment extends across all organizational levels, not just leadership. Our data and AI practice benefits greatly from collaborations, particularly in the MedTech sector, where, for example, Nvidia’s GPUs are essential. We offer comprehensive training that includes setting strategic AI agendas for boards, as well as educating C-suite executives, with programs that have reached up to 10,000 participants from major companies. Our curriculum is meticulously designed for deep, progressive learning. To further enhance AI integration at an enterprise scale, we conduct intensive “bootcamps” focused on deep architecture and large language models. Our capabilities in training have also been bolstered by the acquisition of Audacity and the launch of Learn Vantage, a platform that significantly expands the reach and impact of our learning initiatives.

What are the biggest challenges in upskilling your workforce for an AI-centric future?

Understanding and utilizing data is crucial, whether it’s proprietary, public, or used to train generative AI models. Grasping the capabilities of these models and enhancing them with contextual data is key. For example, techniques like retrieval-augmented generation (RAG) are vital for integrating model knowledge with specific contextual information. Being able to interpret data is fundamental, yet many rush into advanced applications like prompt engineering or leveraging AI for specific functions. The real challenge is fostering data literacy within an organization. In the medical technology sector, we are beginning to see the lines of traditional enterprise information technology (IT) and Product Technology blur, in what we call the “dual role of technology”. We see practical applications, such as using data from robotic surgery platforms for various internal functions. Another example, within a diabetes care company, revealed challenges due to ineffective information sharing across R&D, Quality and Customer Service departments, slowing responses and affecting patient experiences using continuous glucose monitors. These instances highlight that data is a critical barrier — the need for it to flow properly across functions is increasing, and effective understanding and use are becoming increasingly important.

What ethical considerations does AI introduce into your industry, and how are you tackling these concerns?

So, these three things — making sure AI in healthcare is ethical, responsible, and accessible — are crucial for moving healthcare forward in a way that’s fair and effective. There’s a heated debate going on about whether AI algorithms can outdo doctors in giving health advice, which really brings up some big ethical questions about how much we should let AI take over in directing and delivering healthcare. This ties into the whole idea of responsible AI, which looks at security, compliance and ethics, especially focusing on what these AI models are trained on. Historically, treatments and clinical studies haven’t really reflected the diversity of the populations they’re meant to serve, and that’s something we really need to fix in the Life Sciences field. Another big issue is making sure everyone can access these advanced healthcare technologies. It’s tempting to roll these out in well-off, health-savvy areas where they’re likely to see a quick payoff. But we really need to think about how to bring these technologies to everyone fairly and responsibly. This means we must be thoughtful about who’s represented in the data used to train these technologies, making sure the tech is accessible to all, and used properly in healthcare settings.

What are your “Five Things You Need To Do, If AI Is Disrupting Your Industry”?

As more businesses start using generative AI, it’s important to think strategically about how to use this powerful technology. AI can greatly change the way companies work, innovate, and provide value. To make the most of AI, organizations should focus on key strategies that improve their current operations and get them ready for future challenges and opportunities. Here are five crucial strategies for integrating generative AI into your business effectively:

1. Lead with value — Prioritize understanding how gen AI can redefine the company’s value chain.

2. Reinvent talent and ways of working — Invest in developing new skills and behavior changes, from the leadership team to each individual employee.

3. Understand and develop an AI-enabled secure digital core — Establish a robust digital core and data infrastructure to fully leverage the potential of gen AI at scale and enable the continuous creation of new capabilities.

4. Close the gap on responsible AI — Prioritize responsible AI practices to avoid unintended consequences such as inadvertent biases and discrimination in direct-to- consumer areas and ownership of data used for AI applications.

5. Drive continuous reinvention — Foster a culture of continuous reinvention and build the capability, approach and tools that enable companies to adapt and innovate while maintaining day-to-day operations.

What are the most common misconceptions about AI within your industry, and how do you address them?

Many people believe that technology, especially generative AI, is completely ready to go right out of the box. This idea is often simplified too much in advertisements, which really underscores the need for us to think carefully about how we use this technology. There’s also a common focus on initial successes — those simple proofs of concept — that don’t fully consider how to scale these solutions up. Right now, the industry is putting a lot of work into understanding how this technology can truly benefit everyone involved, from the manufacturers in MedTech to the surgeons who use the tech, and ultimately to the patients themselves.

It’s also important to realize that generative AI requires a lot of resources to develop, train, and use. This high demand for resources must be considered in light of companies broader ESG (environmental, social, and governance) efforts and will improve over time.

Lastly, despite worries that AI might take over jobs and automate everything, in fields like medical technology and enterprise applications, it’s about helping people do their jobs better. AI is there to boost the abilities of everyone, whether they’re designing new products or part of a healthcare team, helping them to be more effective, comply to regulations, and get better results. This approach really highlights how crucial it is for humans and machines to work together, enhancing our capabilities rather than replacing us.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“No Problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” — Albert Einstein

This perspective has been immensely helpful in my 30+ consulting career. Reshaping perspectives, bringing diverse teams to industry challenges, considering “related worlds” from other industries/settings, can be extremely useful when adopting new growth strategies or solving discrete operational issues. The age of generative AI gives us new degrees of freedom and “different levels of consciousness” from which to address the challenges and opportunities across the MedTech landscape, and in service to the provision of healthcare in novel ways.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

When considering how to effectively steer the ship, I believe it’s crucial to leverage the collective power of our enterprise and its people. At Accenture, we have over 750,000 employees who are not only talented and bright but also bring a wealth of diverse perspectives that are essential to tap into. My focus is on how to best harness these insights to shape our direction and strategy, whether it’s in relation to a specific client project or in expanding our med tech practice globally. The goal is to draw on the broadest possible range of viewpoints to enrich our strategies, enhance our capabilities, refine our offerings, and improve the work we do with our clients every day.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Years ago, I embraced the concept, both personally and professionally, of infusing more humanity into the workplace. Considering that most people spend a significant portion of their lives at work and derive value from it, it’s important to differentiate between merely performing a role, like that of a consultant, and truly being present as a human being. I regularly encourage our teams, and sometimes our clients, to interact, think, and create solutions in a more human-centered way. If I had the power, I would greatly enhance the level of humanity in business environments. By treating each other with the respect and dignity everyone deserves, I believe we could achieve progress much more quickly and effectively.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can follow my LinkedIn profile here.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.