Corner Office: Sanford Health's CMO Dr. Allison Suttle on the importance of storytelling

Allison Suttle, MD, knew at a young age that medicine was her calling.

Dr. Suttle would spend days at a South Dakota hospital where her father worked, intricately following and learning the anatomy of the human body as her dad read patient X-Rays. Those moments with her father inspired her to pursue a Doctor of Medicine degree from Chicago-based Northwestern Medicine. She went on to complete her OB-GYN residency at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Chicago.

Upon completion of her residency in 2001, Dr. Suttle returned to South Dakota, joining Sioux Falls-based Sanford Health as a practicing physician.

After spending years improving the lives of patients on the front line, Dr. Suttle pursued a new challenge: leadership. She went back to school to earn her MBA and was promoted to CMIO of the health system as it was working to implement an EMR. She continued practicing medicine while serving as CMIO.

"I practiced for about 12 years before I kind of moved into an administrative role," says Dr. Suttle. "That administrative role was really all around the EMR. I saw how that could eventually help physicians and health systems deliver quality and provide more information about patients so physicians could provide better care."

After balancing clinical and administrative duties for several years, Dr. Suttle took on a full-time leadership position as CMO of Sanford Health. In her new role, which she assumed in 2015, she is tasked with improving care quality across a health system that has locations sprawled across two states.

Here, Dr. Suttle took the time to answer Becker's seven "Corner Office" questions.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Question: What piqued your interest in healthcare?

Dr. Allison Suttle: My dad is a radiologist. So, I would go to work with him and sit in the basement of Sioux Valley Hospital and watch him read X-Rays. I loved hearing him talk about all the anatomy terms. I used to follow along in the body, where he was reading, what he was seeing in the CT scans or the chest X-Ray. I always liked science, so it was an easy decision to pursue medicine. Then, when I saw anatomy come to life in the operating room, that's what completely sold me on healthcare. I really loved OB-GYN because of the surgical component, the fact that you could do surgery, but then you were also just taking care of women at an amazing part of their lives.

Q: What do you enjoy most about South Dakota?

AS: It's my home. I love that when I go to various places in my community, I'll run into people I know. I also love being able to get anywhere in the city in about 15 minutes. Then, in another 15 minutes I'm out in the country and I can see for miles. Being able to see that horizon and that landscape is very important. South Dakota has the Badlands, which I describe to people as a miniature version of the Grand Canyon. Sometimes when you are there, it doesn't even feel like you're on Earth. We also have the Black Hills, which is where Mount Rushmore is and some mountains. The terrain is beautiful and something I love.

Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be?

AS: I would change how quickly the industry adopts payment reform. I would love to change how physicians get paid and how healthcare is reimbursed. I think how we get paid is tied to how we practice medicine, and to bring value to patients we need to practice medicine differently. Until we change how we pay people, we can't expect them to practice differently. We created this fee-for-service system where we're getting a lot of services, but we're not getting a lot of value. I think if we could get payment reform figured out, it would allow physicians to get back to why they went into medicine in the first place.

Q: What is your greatest talent or skill outside of the C-suite?

AS: I think it’s connecting with people, understanding people's stories and telling stories. When I began my career and was taking care of patients, I had to create a story. I had 15 minutes with a patient, so I wanted to be present and create a story that would help me feel connected to them and allow me to help them feel better as soon as possible. I would ask myself: "What's the problem? What's their concern? What does it mean to them? And what can we do to get it better?" In other words, I was quickly creating, "Who's the main character? What's the plot? What's the crisis? And then what's the resolution?" So, I see patients and their stories, and it makes them very real and helps me understand how to help them.

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

AS: I like to exercise a lot. Just doing something physical allows your mind to relax and stop thinking so much. It used to be running, for a long time, which I'm just getting back into. Now it's yoga. I've been teaching on and off for several years now.

Q: What is one piece of advice you remember most clearly?

AS: I had a physician colleague in administration, and he was talking to me just as I was making my decision to stop clinical practice to begin my administrative role. He told me, "Right now, you spend on-call nights and all day long helping and taking care of people. You thrive on that, that's what you've been doing for years. In administration, it's harder to feel that you're making a difference. But you will be. You will be making a bigger difference than you ever imagined. But it's hard ... You don't have that kind of immediacy." As I was making the transition, he told me, "Find something you like to do where you can give yourself on a more immediate basis … volunteer somewhere or find somewhere you can help people on a more immediate basis." That's how I got into teaching yoga.

The second piece of advice came from a violin instructor in high school. I was getting really frustrated with a part of one piece of music. After many failed attempts, I just couldn't get it. Finally, my instructor said, "Put down your instrument. At some point you must enjoy the process and appreciate the fact that you haven't figured everything out and that it's not going to be perfect. You have to enjoy the journey. Look back to where you were a year ago, look at where you are now, and look at where you're going." That's always stuck with me. As you get thrown curveballs, especially in healthcare, it's okay. It has allowed me to laugh in tense meetings and realize that we're all doing good things, and it's a process.

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement at Sanford so far?

AS: Sanford is a health system with a broad footprint. Being in North Dakota and South Dakota, we've got a lot of physicians and clinicians in very remote communities. So, we're lucky to be on an integrated system, having physicians coordinate together with their teams. In the last few years, we really worked to improve quality in primary care. We adopted Minnesota's community measures, and we were able to provide physicians with their quality data. We looked at quality data as teams and as individuals. Then we were able to create a system around those care teams and around those physicians to help them meet those measures, and really improve the quality of care in our community. We've seen huge strides with that transparency of data and quality measures, and huge strides in our improvement on those measures.

Primary care and family medicine are the backbones of our organization. We have hundreds of primary care physicians taking care of all these small communities in South Dakota and North Dakota, who we want them to get best care they can wherever they are, not just in the big cities. I'm proud that we found a system to ensure that high quality is standard everywhere, and that it's close to home.

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