Carol Emmott Foundation Board Member, Pamela Sutton-Wallace has served in a wide variety of roles across the healthcare landscape including large academic health systems, medical groups, payers, research, and pharmaceuticals. In 2019 and 2023, Modern Healthcare named her a Top 25 woman leader in healthcare. Douglas Riddle, Carol Emmott Foundation Curriculum Director, had the privilege of speaking with her this month.
CEF: Congratulations on being recognized by Modern Healthcare as one of the Top Women Leaders (2023). You are leading a system-wide health equity study for the Yale New Haven Health System. How will this affect the care that the health system provides?
At Yale New Haven Health, equity assessments are essential aspects of our quality journey. We serve a geographically and demographically diverse community in the capacity as both an academic health system and safety net system. As we capture and refine the demographic data of our patients, we will analyze quality and service outcomes by those validated demographics to identify unintended variations in care. Further, we have a robust inventory of care pathways that allow us to integrate interventions in clinical and operational practice to minimize such variations. Further, under the leadership of Darcey Cobbs-Lomax, we will continue to expand upon our community partnerships to develop strategies to address the social influencers of health that significantly impact the health and well-being of the communities we serve. This is Quality 2.0, looking at equity as an integral part of quality and patient experience, and resolving the impact of unconscious bias in healthcare.
CEF: You majored in political science and African American Studies in college. What do you wish that the opponents of these studies understood?
There’s a growing assumption that African American studies does not constitute a rigorous academic discipline. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, African American studies allowed me to view multiple disciplines, whether political science, literature, history, economics, from the perspective of the black lived experience in the United States. These perspectives were rarely or limitedly taught in my secondary education, and it was eye-opening as a college student to learn and analyze African American culture in a way that was largely ignored in mainstream curriculums. To this day, I am amazed by the underlying fear of considering the perspectives of others and the fear in acknowledging and rectifying the injustices that continue to be perpetuated in this country. The challenges we face, including those in healthcare, won’t be resolved without seeing through the lenses of different lived experiences. Learning to use qualitative and quantitative data has helped me consider diversity of opinions, ideas and lived experiences in complex problem-solving. As an example, I had the privilege of expanding LGBTQ+ services in one of the organizations in which I worked. Expansion of these services required the consideration of the unique healthcare needs based on the lived experiences of this community of patients. We had to design spaces, policies, and practices that differed from our customary designs which allowed us to better service the patient population.
CEF: You’ve had a distinguished and highly varied career in healthcare driving all kinds of change. What are the common themes you’ve focused on as you’ve moved from insurance to pharma to healthcare and across communities from North Carolina to Virginia to New York to Connecticut?
By working in a variety of healthcare industries, I’ve learned that each sector views the healthcare ecosystem from its own perspective and each industry believes it has patients’ best interests at heart. All are well intentioned. But our challenge as a country is to consider how we can align incentives and integrate these services into an efficient, equitable, and efficacious health system for Americans. Further, the complexities of our social, political, and economic environment make sustainable healthcare solutions even more challenging. I think this is why I’ve landed in the academic healthcare field, because we are trying to address those complexities through care delivery, education, and research. My public health background compels me to consider these influences on care delivery, and I find this work to be incredibly rewarding.
By living and working in different communities –urban, rural, and suburban – I have witnessed the profound and systemic impact our environment has on our well-being and health. COVID-19 made this readily apparent as the impact in parts of New York City was dramatically different from the impact in places like Virginia and North Carolina. As we think about creating healthy communities, it requires us to understand these nuances and consider them in our problem-solving. I consider it a privilege to have served in multiple health sectors across differing communities.
CEF: I know that mentoring women of color has been a passion of yours. What is a challenge that is not as well-known faced by your mentees over the years?
We hear quite a bit about the repeated microaggressions towards Black women – everything ranging from critiques of our hair to victims of tokenism. One challenge for many (though certainly not all) Black women is the shouldering of financial and caregiving responsibilities for immediate and extended family members. Certainly, it is well known that women in general must manage the “second shift.” However, from my interactions with women of color, especially as we advance in our careers, we take on a disproportionate share of the financial responsibility or there is an unspoken expectation that we will provide financial assistance. In my generation, many of us were first-generation college graduates who have found ourselves out-earning our parents and/or financially supporting them in some form. While we willingly contribute, such responsibility ultimately has a longer-term impact on our financial health and security. This challenge is compounded by inequitable pay for Black women and unyielding debt associated with educational loans. It even impacts things such as home ownership and creating generational wealth for our families.
I firmly believe this (along with the more blatant aggressions) ultimately takes a physical and mental toll on our bodies, a phenomenon called “weathering” which elevates risk for conditions such as heart disease, obesity, and maternal-fetal morbidity.
CEF: What have you learned managing the extraordinary challenges of work and family with all these moves?
This is the first time in my career that my spouse and I have lived in different cities due to work circumstances. While a bit tricky to negotiate requiring intentional planning, it’s certainly easier to do now than when we had young daughters. During those times, we both made sacrifices when one partner wanted to leave their position and it required the other to follow. Fortunately, because he’s an academician and I’ve largely worked in academic medicine, we’ve been able to negotiate these transitions fairly well. I think the lesson is to choose your partner carefully given these crucial decisions.
And, I would add: ask for and accept help when offered. Many of us feel guilty when we can’t do it all ourselves or when we make choices that prioritize our sanity. Accept help and delegate. Leadership is not survivable if you don’t do it. Relinquish the guilt!
CEF: What else?
Several years ago, I read Tiffany Dufu’s book Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less. It taught me many valuable lessons, including the need to stop doing those things that don’t honor the legacy I wanted to create for my life. Writing down those desired legacies proved to be hugely powerful. They are very personal with no “right” or “wrong” choice. Here are my guideposts:
- Nurtre and develop independent daughters who walk in their own purpose, are fulfilled professionally and personally.
- Encourage, motivate, and inspire women, especially women of color, to achieve their desired goals.
- Create a work culture in healthcare that helps people achieve excellence in both outcomes and service, while helping team members find joy in their work.
Admittedly, it takes some soul searching and self-awareness to define your legacies. Think about who you want to be and the legacy you want to leave. The exercise helped me to see the preciousness of life and to do everything I can to prioritize and honor it.