Allison Suttle: ‘Every moment matters’

From Sioux Falls to the East Coast and playing with Perlman, Sanford Health chief medical officer leads changes in health care.

By: Jared Leighton .

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Dr. Allison Suttle, Sanford Health’s chief medical officer, developed an appreciation for medicine at a young age while spending time with her father in the basement of what was then Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he worked for the Medical X-Ray Center.

Early life

Suttle considers Sioux Falls her home, having moved there at age 4. She was born on Basic Expeditionary Airfield Resources (BEAR) Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where her dad was serving. When she was just a few weeks old, the family relocated to Sacramento, California, so her father could complete a residency in radiology. After that, they were off to Denver and finally Sioux Falls.

Suttle’s mother and father were originally both from nearby Alton, Iowa, and were high school sweethearts. Her father became the first physician in the family, and her mother took care of the home.

In Sioux Falls, Suttle attended All Saints School, where she learned a great deal of science, took violin lessons and began French instruction. She then attended Patrick Henry Middle School and Lincoln High School, where she was involved in orchestra, debate and cheerleading.

Her older sister, Ann, currently a professor of English at the University of Kansas, enrolled in Yale. Suttle followed a similar path, enrolling in Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, from which she would graduate with an honors degree in biochemistry.

University years

At Brown, Suttle was “adopted by the East Coast” and was largely on her own for college, often going home with friends there for the holidays, except Christmas. Her sister, Ann, was completing a doctorate in English at Harvard University at the same time, so Suttle often took the short train or bus ride from Providence to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for visits.

She played violin through college. A friendship with a college classmate led to a chance to play with world-renowned violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman. Suttle also had the opportunity to play with famous jazz pianist Dave Brubeck.

“It was incredible to play with such great musicians,” says Suttle.

Following her undergraduate years at Brown, Suttle was accepted into an M.D./Ph.D. program at Northwestern University, where she lived in downtown Chicago on Lake Shore Drive.

During her time in the graduate program, Suttle decided she didn’t want to be a researcher. She wanted to have a bigger, more direct impact on people. She completed her first rotation in general surgery and her second in obstetrics — and loved both.

From there, Suttle entered a residency at Lutheran General Hospital in nearby Park Ridge, Illinois. She was completing caesarean sections from her very first day and, with the high volume of cases, felt very confident by the end of her time there.

Returning home

During her third year of residency, Suttle’s uncle died in his early 50s of a heart attack.

This led her to reflect on where she wanted to practice and live. Family and friends encouraged her to consider Sioux Falls as a place to practice, and she did want to be close to home, so she returned.

Becoming a leader

Suttle’s passion for learning and a desire to take on leadership roles led her to receiving a master of business administration degree from the University of Sioux Falls.

Then in 2007, she remembers Kelby Krabbenhoft, president and CEO, coming into a meeting and telling the assembled to “think big.” Shortly thereafter, they were told there was going to be a major announcement — Denny Sanford’s gift to the health system of $400 million. At this point, Suttle realized she would no longer be working at a local hospital.

Soon after, Suttle was was named chief medical information officer (CMIO) for Sanford Health, around the time it transitioned to the Epic system of health care software. Suttle loved the electronic medical records system and saw what potential it held.

Suttle also completed Sanford Health’s Leading the Way program for leadership training and found out about more opportunities. For her, things kept progressing as the organization grew and changed, and she was ultimately promoted to chief medical officer in 2015.

Current responsibilities

Suttle’s current responsibilities fall into three buckets:

  • Encouraging innovation by using data, adjusting care delivery and looking for new models of physician compensation.
  • Serving as the clinical voice for the corporate leadership team. She finds out what other health care systems are doing to stay in line with the competition and thinks critically about how Sanford Health should respond.
  • Chairing the Quality Cabinet, a panel that focuses on the move to compensation based on value in health care, improving the patient experience and ensuring the same level of health care wherever a patient goes across Sanford Health.

While being in a leadership role doesn’t provide the sorts of immediate rewards that patient care does, Suttle realizes her work in administration can have a much larger long-term impact, and she enjoys it a great deal.

For example, one of the previous areas of focus for her and her team was hypertension. Sanford Health now has excellent scores in care for hypertension, and patients are much better taken care of in this aspect of their health than they were five years ago.

Suttle appreciates getting to see the work of the Quality Cabinet come to life as they manage whole populations, even if those results take time.

“This work is a privilege because health care is very personal. Every moment matters and impacts someone important,” she says.

Personal life and interests

Suttle also maintains an active and interesting personal life outside all of the work she does for Sanford Health.

She and her husband, Gary, married in October 2001, right after making the move to Sioux Falls. He teaches English classes at the University of Sioux Falls. Together, they have one son, Raymond, who is currently in eighth grade at Edison Middle School.

In terms of hobbies and interests, Suttle still enjoys playing the violin and attending concerts. She also serves on the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra board.

Suttle also practices yoga and serves as an instructor. She sees connections to her work in medicine because it helps people be calm and healthy while adding a spiritual dimension.

Looking to the future

Suttle sees a great deal of important work ahead.

“I want Sanford Health to be the number one choice for patients wherever we are located and for Sanford to be the number one location of choice for physicians and nurses to work,” she says.

Suttle says health care has the potential for unintended consequences, and she’s working to manage those consequences in a changing health care environment. Truly, every moment matters.

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