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Partners Healthcare taps surgeon to lead network

Board appoints veteran head of physicians group

David Torchiana (above) will take over from Dr. Gary Gottlieb, who is stepping down after five years.
David Torchiana (above) will take over from Dr. Gary Gottlieb, who is stepping down after five years.

Partners HealthCare, reeling from a rejection of its plan to take over three hospitals, has named Dr. David Torchiana, a cardiac surgeon and in-house executive, to become its next chief executive.

Torchiana will lead Boston-based Partners, the state’s largest employer and its largest health system, beginning in March. He will replace Dr. Gary Gottlieb, who is stepping down after five years in the job.

Partners’ board approved the appointment Wednesday night. Torchiana, who has been chief executive of the Massachusetts General Physicians Organization since 2003, will provide “a steady hand for Partners in the years ahead,” said Edward Lawrence, chairman of Partners’ board.

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“During this time of uncertainty in the health care environment, Dr. Torchiana will be a leader who provides stability and lends a voice of assurance to the community,’’ Lawrence said in a memo to employees.

In choosing Torchiana, the board went with a known quantity and stuck to Partners’ roots: All of Partners’ chiefs have been doctors from its Harvard-affiliated flagship hospitals, Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General.

Torchiana, 60, has never run a hospital — his current job involves overseeing a practice of more than 2,000 physicians at Mass. General — but he is widely respected in the Boston health care community. In the medical world, the doctors group he heads, consisting of some of the top doctors in the nation, is considered as influential as the hospital itself.

His appointment comes less than a week after a Superior Court judge rejected a deal that would have allowed Partners to acquire South Shore Hospital in Weymouth and Hallmark Health System’s two hospitals in Melrose and Medford.

Partners, which generates $11 billion in annual revenue from 10 hospitals and 6,000 doctors, is now widely expected by analysts to abandon its expansion plans and renew its focus on medical research, teaching, and health care delivery.

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While the board had looked for an experienced hand within Partners from the start, Torchiana, who has kept a relatively low public profile, became the consensus choice after the presidents of Mass. General and the Brigham indicated they did not want the job, according to people familiar with the process.

Torchiana, known to friends as “Torch,” had made it clear that he would not pursue the job if Mass. General president Dr. Peter L. Slavin, with whom he has worked closely for years, wanted to be considered, those people say.

Dr. Elizabeth G. Nabel, Brig-ham and Women’s president, also was not a candidate for the Partners job. In addition to her work at the Brigham, Nabel has been negotiating a consulting contract with the National Football League, a role that would need approval from Partners.

Torchiana is not someone who typically seeks the spotlight, said Dr. Thomas Lee, the former head of Partners’ doctors network, who worked with Torchiana for 18 years.

“He has moved upward not because he was trying to climb upward, but because he’s always been the person everyone trusted,” said Lee, now the chief medical officer at Press Ganey Associates, a consulting firm. “There are plenty of people in Boston who love to hear their own voice — he’s not one of them. At the same time, he’s not shy or afraid.”

Torchiana will be tasked with shaping a strategy for Partners after the expansion plan pushed by the current chief, Gottlieb, has failed to materialize.

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Partners executives had negotiated a deal with former attorney general Martha Coakley that allowed Partners to acquire the three hospitals while agreeing to price caps and other limits on growth.

But that deal was rejected last week by Suffolk Superior Court Judge Janet L. Sanders, who was concerned that a bigger Partners would mean higher health care costs for consumers. Partners is the state’s highest-cost health system.

Partners can still try to proceed with its acquisition plan, but newly installed Attorney General Maura Healey has said she will sue to block the deals.

As public criticism for the expansion plan grew, Gottlieb said in October he would step down to run Partners in Health, a nonprofit unrelated to Partners HealthCare. Gottlieb, a psychiatrist, will be leaving Partners four months earlier than he initially indicated.

Torchiana is an associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and was formerly chief of cardiac surgery at Mass. General.

He graduated from Yale University in 1976 and earned his medical degree from Harvard in 1981.

He sits on a panel of top Boston area business executives called Jobs for Massachusetts, which meets monthly with the governor and top legislative leaders to discuss public issues.

Stuart Altman, chairman of the state’s Health Policy Commission, which helped turn the tide against Partners’ deals by warning the moves would drive up costs, said he hoped Torchiana will lead the organization in a new direction.

“He’s a very thoughtful guy and I found him to be very balanced,” Altman said. “I’m hopeful he would learn a lot from this [judge’s ruling] and will work with us and with everyone to help make a very high quality and affordable health care system.”

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Thoralf Sundt, chief of cardiac surgery at Massachusetts General, said he trained under Torchiana as his assistant in the 1980s and found him to be smart, genuine, and humble.

“He’s an extremely honest, self-reflective person,” Sundt said. “The stereotype of cardiac surgeons is they’re egotistical types who would never tell you if they did something wrong. Torch was constantly trying to do better, constantly improving. He’s a physician’s physician. He really cares about the patient and fights as hard as he can to do the best for every patient.”

“He has a keen mind and he’s willing to listen,” said Andrew Dreyfus, chief executive of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, who has sat across the table from Torchiana in negotiating health insurance contracts. “He’s someone who is one of the most respected cardiac surgeons in the city.’’


Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@


globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal. Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.