Pamela Sutton-Wallace earned many accolades while serving 17 years in the Duke University Health System and easily could have spent many more years there. But she wanted to prove she could excel in leading a healthcare institution, and that led her to University of Virginia Medical Center, where she was named CEO in 2014.
One in a series of interviews with Modern Healthcare's Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare for 2016.
“I grew up in the Duke system and was afforded many opportunities to develop skills, knowledge and relationships to be successful in healthcare leadership,” she says. “In accepting the role of CEO at UVA, I wanted to challenge myself by applying these skills in a new environment where I believed I could bring value.”
Given her Duke pedigree, where she rose to senior vice president of hospital operations, it’s no surprise that her goals for UVA are high: to make it one of the top 10 health systems in the country. She inherited a strong structure, one with little to no debt on the books. But as she assessed UVA, she came away feeling it was a well-respected organization that nonetheless wasn’t getting enough attention for all of its accomplishments.
“UVA had this great reputation, but you didn’t see it referenced anywhere,” Sutton-Wallace says. “It wasn’t on Leapfrog and U.S. News & World Report. You didn’t see it on NIH listings. But I felt very aspirational, because all the underpinnings are here. We have some of the best faculty, some of the most innovative physicians, nurses and professionals I’ve ever met.”
From the moment she began talks with her supervisor at the University of Virginia, Executive Vice President Rick Shannon, who is known for his work in quality and safety, she was determined that quality, safety and service would be “the hallmark of care.”
Thus, UVA uses the Lean method and real-time, root-cause problem solving to address six areas of concern in its Be Safe Initiative. If an issue is reported in any of those areas, from a pressure ulcer to an infection to a staff injury, Sutton-Wallace and her leadership team visit the unit/department in question to ask what happened, whether the team faced barriers that led to the issue, and whether it was preventable.
“In two very short years, we have been able to achieve demonstrated improvements,” she says. “That’s exciting to me. That’s why we do what we do.”
Sutton-Wallace took a circuitous path to end up doing what she does. Although she was a candy striper as a youth – her mom worked as a medical transcriptionist for close to 40 years in a small Baltimore community hospital – her initial interest was in politics.
“I was three years into working on a Ph.D. in political science,” she says, “and I realized I didn’t want to teach and do research in the political space for the rest of my life.”
She took a job working in underwriting at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina. It was during that time that Hillary Clinton was attempting to create a model for universal healthcare during her husband’s administration. Sutton-Wallace became inspired by that and went back to school, earning a master’s in public health at Yale, a curriculum that still pays dividends to this day, she says.
“At Yale, I had to take just as many epidemiology and biostatistics research method courses as health policy and management courses,” Sutton-Wallace notes. “I was in a classroom setting that taught clinical aptitude. The majority of students weren’t clinicians, but you came to understand disease pathology and the whole notion of population health.”
Her background has afforded her good conversations with clinicians, she says, because she doesn’t approach situations from a strictly financial angle.
“I’m very invested in what the quality is, and what are the outcomes associated with care,” she says. “Public health has always been about population health.”
Of course, finances are always one facet of the picture, and that is quite clear at academic medical centers, including UVA, which will face unprecedented financial challenges given the changing climate for healthcare providers.
“How are academic medical centers, which have often relied on very slim margins, going to continue to invest in research and education?” she says. “That’s really challenging, because we still have an insatiable appetite for new technology and new discoveries, and we still want to train the best and the brightest new clinicians. But we don’t necessarily have the income streams in those missions to cover those costs.”
It’s a dilemma that CEOs nationwide are trying to solve, even those like Sutton-Wallace who didn’t initially aspire to a healthcare career. Because of that, Sutton-Wallace says she enjoys speaking to students and young professionals about her journey, including that interrupted path to a political-science doctorate.
“My best lessons came from making mistakes,” she says. “You learn a lot about yourself. You learn resilience, you learn the power of mentors to encourage you, and you learn how to integrate those learnings into improved performance.
“You also learn not to be discouraged if things don’t work out exactly as you’ve planned. Half the battle is figuring out what it is that you don’t want to do.”