Sutton-Wallace focuses on "what's right"

Pamela Sutton-Wallace was recognized for her contributions to the University Health System


Pamela Sutton-Wallace was recognized in Modern Healthcare's 2018 list of "Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare." 

Courtesy of Eric Swenson

Modern Healthcare’s 2018 list of “Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare” recognized the University’s own Pamela Sutton-Wallace. For the past three years, serving as chief executive officer of the University Health System, Sutton-Wallace has directed efforts to create a health system that effectively and efficiently treats patients, employs a staff that reflects the diverse demographics of Charlottesville and promotes the overall well-being of the community.

“She had great expertise as an operator, but also was socially conscious,” said Dr. Richard P. Shannon, executive vice president for health affairs. “Since she came to Charlottesville, she has, working with all of us, helped completely transform the care delivery model.”

Sutton-Wallace did not always envision having a career in healthcare. Her background is in political science — she received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and African/Afro-American Studies from Washington University at St. Louis and completed graduate courses in political science at Duke University. An interest in paths other than research and teaching brought Sutton-Wallace into the world of healthcare insurance. The change ultimately led her to pursue a Masters in Public Health from Yale University, a program that Sutton-Wallace credits with her valuable foundation in public health.

“The reason the public health background has been so helpful is that I’m seen as more than just a finance person or business person,” Sutton-Wallace said. “I can understand when physicians talk about their patients … I understand caring for populations of people. That’s by definition what public health and epidemiology are. It has been hugely beneficial.”

Within a few years, Sutton-Wallace returned to Duke University, this time as a fellow in a post-graduate program geared towards training healthcare administrators. She then worked for the Duke University Health System in a variety of positions, such as the head of the bone marrow and stem cell transplant center, strategic services associate for the integration of Duke University’s three hospitals into one health system, chief operating officer of ambulatory services and, finally, senior vice president of hospital operations. 

“I was particularly proud that when I left the organization I was the senior vice president of hospital operations,” Sutton-Wallace said. “To me that was like the culmination job because all the people doing the things I had ever done were now reporting to me. It was a great experience, and I learned everything I know about healthcare there.”

After 17 years at Duke University, in 2014, Sutton-Wallace accepted the offer to be the CEO of the University Medical Center with the hopes of helping the University become a health system known for its excellence.

“I felt like coming to U.Va. was such a rare opportunity, to come to a place where I felt like I could make a difference, that I thought my skills were needed, but I also thought I could still learn a lot,” Sutton-Wallace said. “I felt like it was a real opportunity to put U.Va. Medical Center and U.Va. Health System on the map, and let everyone know what great work we are doing here. That was exciting to me, and I think we’ve done that.”

Though her time at the University so far has been brief, Sutton-Wallace has already earned the respect of her colleagues and the healthcare community as a whole, according to Shannon. When naming Sutton-Wallace’s unique qualities, Shannon cited her humble attitude and her focus on “what’s right, not who’s right.”

“Not many people in major organizations have that sense of humility, and yet can solve really significant problems, which is what people really want you to do,” Shannon said. “I think her recognition by Modern Healthcare is only the beginning of what’s going to be more and more people looking to her as a mentor.”

In Sutton-Wallace’s nomination in Modern Healthcare, the magazine praised her for aiding in the introduction of a new care delivery model that emphasizes the patient experience during recovery and the reduction of C. difficile infections by 35 percent in the past year. Most notably, the article commended the University Health System’s rapid and holistic response to the events of Aug. 11 and 12.

“She has created great affinity with the community in the wake of August 12th,” Shannon said. “She was actively engaged in reaching out to the community to see what beyond medical care we could help provide … She is an icon in the Charlottesville community in a way that I think few previous CEOs have been.”

Sutton-Wallace commented on the extensive preparation that preceded the white supremacist rallies and the hospital’s heightened awareness of potential signs of danger. Staff members monitored social media for almost a month in advance of the protests, while clinicians cleared their operating schedules. The leadership team hired additional clinicians and security personnel and increased communication with other hospitals in the area.

“Our team was ready,” Sutton-Wallace said. “They mobilized. It wasn’t a fire drill. It was well-prepared, well-orchestrated … It was seamless, and I think that kind of planning, that kind of constant readiness, is what we are here to do, and I must say that we do it exceptionally well.”

Beyond responding to community crises effectively, Sutton-Wallace said there is the opportunity to turn the University Health System into a nationally-acclaimed healthcare provider.

“What I hope for as a healthcare organization is to continue to raise the level of excellence here, and to really enhance the U.Va. brand and to be the top-notch provider of choice for all those in the Commonwealth, if not nationally,” Sutton-Wallace said. 

However, Sutton-Wallace also identified the need to diversify the hospital workforce in order to achieve such a status. A proponent of incorporating people of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds into hospital operations, Sutton-Wallace herself has been recognized multiple times for her leadership as a minority executive in healthcare, including in Modern Healthcare’s 2016 “10 Minority Executives to Watch” list. When asked about her overarching goals for the University Health System, Sutton-Wallace stressed the importance of diversifying the hospital workforce. 

“Regarding diversity inclusion, [the goal is] really to see that as an extension of that same excellence,” Sutton-Wallace said. “I think that people somehow think that diversity inclusion is an obligation or a duty, when in fact it actually achieves excellence.”

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