Douglas Sutton, EdD, MPA, MSN, APRN | Safety, Quality, Informatics and Leadership

Douglas Sutton headshot over crimson.


Douglas Sutton, EdD, MPA, MSN, APRN, greatly values continuing education—both as a professor and also as a learner. And this devotion to learning recently led his career in an exciting new direction, as deputy director for Community and Population Health State of Florida: District 5 (Broward County).

The journey to this role really began several years ago, when he was working as an associate professor at the Northern Arizona University. He was also on the governing council member for Flagstaff Medical Center. While he loved both roles, he wanted to find a new way to build on his four decades of nursing experience to bring new ideas to the classroom and to the health care setting.

Strengthening Skills to Improve Outcomes

“At Flagstaff Medical Center, we were focused on identifying system-wide opportunities to continuously improve patient and organizational quality, safety and value outcomes,” Sutton explains. Faced with the challenge of increasing quality while reducing cost, he recognized the need to draw on outside resources to help him be more strategic and to find new ways to lead the group to embrace new and more effective ways to doing business. He also realized the value strengthening his ability in these areas would be in helping him to design clinical vignettes to engage students in leadership and management strategies to achieve best outcomes. This would allow him to have the biggest impact on training a new generation of health care professionals to think more broadly.

He searched online for training programs in the state of Arizona to see what options were available in his area. Harvard Medical School’s Safety, Quality, Informatics and Leadership certificate program was among the choices that appeared. While the name caught his attention, he didn’t think he would ever be accepted into such a prestigious program. Nonetheless, he decided to take a chance and submit his application. Then he forgot about it and became busy with a variety of commitments. He was quite surprised—and pleased—when a few weeks later he received an email accepting him into the program.

Improving Patient Safety and Outcomes

The overall Safety, Quality, Informatics and Leadership program experience met his expectations and then some. He was excited by how many people from different disciplines and different cultures came together in the classroom to solve common problems and to learn from each other. In addition, he found being paired with experts from around the world provided exciting new perspectives that he could draw from. Further, the program provided real-world applications he could immediately apply to the health care setting.

Addressing a Common Health Care Problem

For instance, at Flagstaff Medical Center, a big concern was reducing common causes of complications affecting patients. Applying the strategies he learned, he was able to analyze data in new ways. This led him to recognize that falls and skin infections were among the most frequent complication impacting patients and to take a new approach to reducing the problem.

He came up with a plan to apply a special cleanser on patients’ stomachs and leave it on overnight. This proved to be a simple, yet effective, way to reduce the number of infections patients faced. He also focused his capstone project on this topic, working with his advisor to maximize the impact.

“This was a win-win, since we had real data in real time to show the organization the impact such a simple step could have,” Sutton says. He adds that this experience taught him a lot about thinking through how health care organizations can respond to challenges on the micro and macro levels.

Measuring Success: A New Way of Doing Business

Since completing the Safety, Quality, Informatics and Leadership program, he has benefitted on many levels. First, his hospital followed his lead on adjusting its best practices to be more strategic in addressing pressing problems.

He also applied the takeaways from the program to enhance his effectiveness as a faculty member, engaging students more directly in the classroom. Sutton also developed a version of the Harvard program model to implement at Northern Arizona University.

“We had a master’s in leadership program at the university, but it was more generic,” he points out. “We decided to create a quality, safety and leadership program and are now in the final stages of implementing it,” he adds.

“To be exposed to something and to be able to figure out how to apply it is so meaningful and is really rewarding. It’s improving outcomes at the medical center and it’s truly energizing my teaching,” he says.

But perhaps most exciting is that his experience at Harvard also helped him secure his new role as Deputy Director for Community and Population Health in Broward County.

“In each of the interview sessions I had before being offered this position, I was always asked about what it was like to be in Boston and HMS. Clearly every interviewer noted the Harvard training, and I was pleased to share information on a variety of topics,” he explains, adding that he truly credits his time at Harvard with helping him secure this opportunity. It’s a very tangible way to see the results of all his efforts.

Advice to Others Looking to Strengthen Quality, Safety and Leadership Skills

His advice to others looking to boost their quality, safety and leadership skills is quite simple. He advises them to explore Harvard’s Safety, Quality, Informatics and Leadership program themselves to see all they can get out of it. He also cautions them not to be intimidated by the Harvard name but rather, to see what they can learn in the classroom that can transform their work. “It’s such a rich and embracing community to work alongside physicians and find common goals,” he says.

“In health care, we talk all of the time about team building but we often don’t really do it,” Sutton points out. “I realized through the Harvard curriculum just how much time I spent on theoretical concepts in my teaching while doing much less on acting on these concepts. At Harvard, we did act. We applied the information through case studies, and it was very practical,” he says. This insight is now informing his work and inspiring him to be much more interactive.

“We’ve all taken classes from faculty members who wrote the textbooks, but at Harvard, I took classes from the people who actually inspired the books—this was such an incredible opportunity and so enriching.” As his new job shows, it has also truly led his career to expand in such exciting new directions.

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Written by Lisa D. Ellis